Life, but not as we know it

By | 15th July 2010

Some of us knew it already. Others denied it. Still more did not want to know about it and others closed their minds to it.

I am not talking about Legal Process Outsourcing, nor Smart e-Discovery. I am talking about a report I first heard early last Thursday morning on the Today programme about the discovery of more than 70 flint tools and chips unearthed in Happisburgh on the North East coast of Norfolk.

Happisburgh (hands up all of you who thought it was called Happy’s Berg, when it should be pronounced Hazeboro’!!) is a small village on the coast of Norfolk between Cromer and Great Yarmouth. Until last week it was remarkable for little more than a red and white painted lighthouse, a nearby garden owned and cultivated by one Alan Gray and a propensity for its houses nearest to the sea to fall off the cliffs into the waves below, a phenomenon common enough on the east coast of England and one which arouses huge controversy every time someone suggests that it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money NOT to shore up the ever crumbling cliffs against the encroaching sea but to pay proper compensation to the house owners to enable them to move elsewhere.

Now, since Thursday morning July 8th 2010, it is famous for relics of an ancient human colony of homo antecessor or “pioneer man” a species from about 800,000 years ago in Spain. New techniques have dated the find to between 780,000 and a staggering 950,000 years old, showing that early humans reached Britain almost 250,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The previous oldest ancient human site was at Pakefield in Suffolk and dates to about 700,000 years old. As The Times put it that day …”British civilisation began in Norfolk”.

Often, it is a case of being in the right place at the right time. The ancient East Anglians migrated and/or died out as a new Ice Age turned the temperature from balmy to bleak and the area was recolonised later on so the pioneer men weren’t really in the right place at the right time.

According to Legal Week of 8thJuly, a number of deferred associates who might well have thought they were not in the right place at the right time and who went to work in the public sector while awaiting their places at recession hit law firms absolutely loved the experience. The report says they received reasonable pay, worked for the greater good and worked on more interesting and responsible jobs than they would have done as a menial worker ant in a big firm. Some were even said not to want to return to their firms!!

The sad thing is that almost certainly if and when they do return they will be treated to a diet of mundane tasks such as document review despite their experience gained elsewhere. That is the way of large law firms who have to keep the pyrimidical structure going. In the meantime the deferred associates may come to view their secondments as being in the right place at the right time, something they would not necessarily have thought likely when they first heard that their appointment was to be deferred.

May be this is all too gloomy a view. Reading about a Strategic Technology Forum held recently in that Mecca of the legal world Marbella, I was struck by the comment (Legal Week, 8th July) by Mark Dawkins, managing partner of Simmons & Simmons who have recently struck a deal with Integreon to outsource document review, due diligence and document production, that he expects the gearing between partners and assistants to decline. He accounts for his views by saying that junior lawyers will be expected to focus on higher quality work which needs to be kept in house while the other less valuable work is sent to India.

He may well be right but I fear for the growing number of aspiring lawyers who will, on that basis, graduate and not be able to find a job in a law firm, one of the unintended consequences I suspect of the current rush into outsourcing.

I have already expressed the view in recent posts that outsourcing should not be regarded as a panacea and that a well organised review of documents after sensible application of technology here in the UK may well provide a quicker and more cost effective e-discovery solution than sending everything to India, however good the reviewers there may be. Add to that, the real possibility that lawyers here will just not get the right experience and you will soon find that the pyramid is not nearly so broadly based with all the unintended consequences that brings in terms of a drop in partner remuneration and fewer funds for expansion, together with a contraction in the amount of work which clients feel it right to send to their lawyers when it can, according to those very lawyers, be done better and more cheaply elsewhere.

Being in the right place at the right time is sometimes pure chance but sometimes can be engineered. The early Norfolk inhabitants migrated or died and others took their place. Was that chance or poor planning?

I make a prediction. Despite the headlong rush to outsourcing, the next big idea will be…… insourcing.

You may laugh! After all, it is known that I live in Norfolk, where we now know civilisation in this country began and so what do I know?

But when insourcing is a reality, remember you read it here first!

*Happisburgh artwork © John Sibbick, 2010

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