As an experiment, go to Google Maps and find Prague. Then press the minus sign to move out from there. Czech Republic borders Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria; it is close to Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. In purely geographic terms, Czech Republic sits at the centre of a vast region which, if you leave out Germany and Austria, consists of countries which (accepting that most of them are as different from each other as they are from us), may be described as “aspirational”. Their nascent economies were badly hit by the recession; not all of them define “democracy” in quite the same way as we do; the business practices in some of these countries would keep a compliance officer awake for ever; their systems of law owe very little either to the common law or to Western Europe’s civil law.
That may not, yet, add up to a bustling marketplace for eDiscovery as it is understood in the US, but it makes Prague a promising venue for those providing tools and services for electronic evidence, computer forensics, cyber security and the broader legal technology market. These are the subjects which topped the bill at the third LawTech Europe Congress which took place in Prague last week.
Discovery has its place of course. There may not (yet) be a big demand for eDiscovery tools for purely local purposes, but the countries of the wider region do business with the US and with other jurisdictions which require discovery and which attract the attention of regulators. The big players – EY, KPMG, Deloitte et al – have their feet under local tables for other reasons and it makes sense for providers without a local presence to look in from time to time and sniff the air. The LawTech Europe Congress provides a good context for that.
Besides all that, there is some merit in holding a conference in a region which does not have a typical jurisdictional context. Such events inevitably, and rightly, bias their programmes towards local concerns such as rule changes, new laws and the consequences of court judgments. There is something to be said for getting away from that and thinking through the things which have no frontiers, where the same technology and skills are relevant whatever the local context.
As if all that were not enough reason for holding a conference in Prague, it is very beautiful city, one where you can feast your eyes and (if you choose carefully) your stomach, at an acceptable cost. It is under 90 minutes flying time from London.
I’m told that you can get to Prague by EasyJet. I prefer a queue-free departure and a stress-free arrival in the right country on the day of departure, and my son William and I took a rare opportunity to use some British Airways Avios – rare because they hardly ever seem available for the flights one actually wants to take. Can I just say, for the benefit of those of you still grappling with potties, nappies, homework and the rest, that there comes a time when your child drives you to the airport, helps you with your bag, offers you good company and generally turns the tiresome business of travel into a pleasure. We stayed at the venue, the Clarion Congress Hotel which, although out in the suburbs, is clean, serves half-decent coffee at any time of day or night, and sits right on top of a Metro station with frequent trains to the centre.
We spent two sunny, late autumnal days in the centre of Prague. The main tourist streets really need pedestrian lanes called, perhaps, “Active”, “Alive” and “Other” so that those who just want to stop suddenly and stand still with their mouths open can do so without being trampled under the heavy boots which I wear for the purpose.
Most tourists stick to the Charles Bridge, the castle, the crowded Old Town Square with its striking clock and the streets between them. Tipped off the week before by tweeter @PMEBlond we went to see the railway station with its statue of the Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued from the Nazis and a suitcase. By chance, he has been honoured in Prague on the day I publish this.
The crumbling old station has fantastic ceilings and carvings….
….together with a plaque bearing the name of Woodrow Wilson, though commemorating the visit of a later US President. Not far away, we came across a bust of Sir Winston Churchill.
Winton, Wilson and Churchill one after the other; memories are long in Prague.
Another walk took us to the church which sheltered the assassins of the brutal Heydrich until they were flushed out – literally, because hoses were used to get them out of the crypt. Outside are the sombre stone memorials engraved with the names and birth dates of those who were taken to Mauthausen concentration camp as part of the reprisals for Heydrich’s death.
We talked about this afterwards in a taxi, and the driver interrupted; he knew all about the story.
The best bits of Prague, to my eye, are the streets away from the centre, whether narrow winding lanes with courtyards off them or what seem at first to be fairly ordinary shopping streets until you look up at the carvings, statues and other decorative works. Here is an elegant 1909 facade with plaques recording the technological inventions of the time – telephone on the left and telegraph on the right:
Here, a fine piece of decoration is juxtaposed with the crass vulgarity of American fast “food”.
It takes some dedication to find good food in Prague. We went back to a place I know called Kampa Park on a pontoon just below the Charles Bridge and a few feet above the water. Most restaurants offer variants on the pig, apparently drowned in thick, musty sauce. I don’t criticise it. I just don’t like it. Kampa Park offers other meat and when the cooking is added to view, was worth the fight across the crowded bridge.
What you need when you visit a place like this, I discover, is Neil Cameron, who seems to have spent his first day in Prague researching the best places to eat and drink. He rounded up a party to go to the Restaurace BelleVue where my share of the bill, alarming as it looked in Crowns, was amply justified by the quality. The building was, apparently, the headquarters of the resistance to German occupation, despite a location with picture windows overlooking the Charles Bridge and on a main thoroughfare. Hidden in plain sight, it seems.
I will come back in a separate article to the content of the conference itself.