Tracking Currents and Following Flotsam

The Atlantic reported this week on the outcome of a 1997 cargo ship spill. The story was picked up yesterday by CBC’s As It Happens (listen here). Here’s what happened as described in The Atlantic article:

It started in 1997. On February 13 of that year, a rogue wave hit the New York-bound cargo ship Tokio Express while it was only 20 miles off Land’s End, on Britain’s southwest coast. The ship stayed afloat; some of its cargo, however—62 shipping containers—were thrown overboard as the vessel pitched. One of these containers contained Legos. Tons of Legos—many of them, because of course, nautical-themed. There were toy kits that included plastic aquanauts. And spear guns (13,000 of them). And life preservers (26,600). And scuba tanks (97,500). And octopi (4,200).

These Lego items have been turning up on the beaches of Cornwall ever since, serving as a reminder that:

…. the ocean’s currents can be as mysterious as they are powerful. “Tracking currents is like tracking ghosts—you can’t see them,” the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer told Cacciottolo. “You can only see where flotsam started and where it ended up.”

More than 17 years have passed since the Tokio Express lost its containers of Lego and still the current is bringing pieces to shore.

When I look back at how I practiced law in 1997, I recall I was just beginning to use a desktop computer for land title and corporate searches. My cell phone could only be used as a car phone. My small firm office relied on photocopies, fax, snail mail and the telephone. Phone messages from clients were recorded by hand on pink message slips that were stacked on a brass spike on my desk. I’d receive and respond to correspondence from clients or counsel within days rather than hours. Changes to draft documents were made in red ink and much paper.

Legal profession observers have been prophesying change in the profession for many years, yet it sometimes seems little of substance has really changed. Indeed, in their recent blog post, Whither Change? the authors of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog pointed to the remarkably slow pace of any major change in the legal profession, noting that:

The impending doom and demise of BigLaw is getting to be a very old story. Old enough, we should all be asking; So when is this actually going to happen?

The question being asked in the 3 Geeks post, and by others, is whether any of this is actually ever going to happen in a meaningful way.

But there is evidence of a shifting current. Every now and then, something does change. Law societies relax their rules. New kinds of legal service providers are approved and regulated. Virtual firms offer traditional legal services through new media. Traditional firms offer unbundled services and turn to value-based billing methods. New technologies enable new ways to communicate with and provide value to clients.

Small changes in the ways that law is practiced, occurring here and there, are not unlike the Lego toys washing up on Cornwall’s beaches. The waves of the future have washed over the legal profession’s ship and swept away some of the cargo. The mysterious currents of change carry it into our sight.

While some might interpret the prophecies of the legal futurists as suggesting the entire cargo is going to wash ashore all at once, it seems far more likely to me that what we’ll rather see is more like the flotsam that lands here and there along the coastline. As time goes on, there will continue to be evidence of incremental changes, mostly isolated and hard to see from a distance, but occasionally arriving en masse and with its own hashtag.

For me, the question is not so much when will it happen; rather, whether lawyers will lift their eyes to the horizon and see what the current is surely bringing to shore.

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