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Tales from practice | Facing Armageddon

Tales from practice | Facing Armageddon


In December 1999, Richard Barr issued a plea for lawyers to stay calm and not panic about the Y2K bug

The government assures us that the world is not going to end on 1 January 2000. But just in case they're wrong, it's best to be prepared, writes Richard Barr

Everything is fine. It is all hunky dory. Nothing to worry about. No problem. Trust us. We are the government. Y2K will come and go without a single hitch. Don't stockpile food. Don't keep cans of petrol in your garage. Don't avoid flying. Don't draw out all your money from the bank. Don't buy up the candles in the supermarket. Leave some toilet paper for someone else. Don't do anything you would not otherwise do for a normal celebration. Or so says the reassuring booklet 'What everyone should know about the Millennium Bug' recently circulated to every household in the country.

Yet not every assurance given by the government can be relied on. It may be fine, but supposing, just supposing it isn't. Besides, even if the government makes sure that all computers learn to recognise the turn of the millennium, it still has no way of knowing if there is something else in store which has nothing to do with microchips.

Even the great Nostradamus tends only to get it right in retrospect. Remember, the world was supposed to have ended sometime in July? Well it did not. We learn about the best Nostradamus predictions only after they have been fulfilled.

There are already groups around the world who are preparing for Armageddon, who are retreating to remote spots with windmills and bags of beans to await the end of civilisation. They see the upsurges in earthquakes, violent storms, drought and the demise of Lord Archer as portents.

According to them, God, who is certainly Y2K compliant, has selected 1/1/2000 as the day to send down fire and brimstone upon us all. That is curious, because whatever else, it is most unlikely that Jesus was born on 1 January 00. His year of birth has variously been put at 4 BC or 6 AD. This means that either we missed the event several years ago, or they can have another six years to complete the extension to the Jubilee line, and the wiring in the Millennium Dome might even be finished.

But it is not for me to say that the world will not end. I don't want to be left with a red face like Michael Fish (he who confidently forecast that there would be no hurricane, the very night a hurricane swept across the south of England). So, as you pick yourselves out of the post millennium rubble, I don't want you writing to the ruins of the Solicitors Journal complaining that I did not warn you sufficiently of what was to happen.

Just to be on the safe side, solicitors should therefore be making contingency plans for the holocaust.

Get in plenty of supplies. If your staff have been assaulted by thunderbolts and overwhelmed by floods, they will need a good strong cup of coffee to be up and running after the first of January. Make sure you buy tins, in case glass jars are smashed by an earthquake near you.

Public transport may not be at its best if a sudden heat wave has make all the railway lines buckle (quite apart from the risk that railways will suddenly be running 1900 timetables '“ as if anyone would notice). You should therefore aim to keep your staff in the office for several weeks until normal services resume. Lay in stocks of dried egg, Spam and corned beef. Buy in camp beds and primus stoves. Acquire itchy army blankets, to ensure that they do not sleep too well, and are up and time recording at the crack of dawn.

For those who practise in coastal towns (or the Fens) take a leaf out of Noah's book and start now constructing your arks. On a recent training day in Alexander Harris, everyone was asked to describe their special skills (apart from legal ones). Talents included the ability to speak Turkish and Welsh, running the Marathon and a power to charm the listing clerk at a local county court. By the same token you may find that your staff are trained ship builders or experience mariners.

Dust off your old manual typewriters. Here solicitors may well be at an advantage, because many will only recently have stopped using them. Maybe some of you still do? Most quill pens also have been certified as being Y2K compliant.

Issue your proceedings two weeks early. If you have court cases fixed for the first few days in January, make sure you instruct counsel now. Counsel, being closer to gods than we are, will probably have a better chance of survival.

Years ago our office was flooded. Three feet of water from the north sea sloshed around on the ground floor. Three fish were later caught. The lower drawers of filing cabinets burst open as the files swelled like damp grain. But life had to go on. Writs (as they were then nostalgically called) had to be issued. The local magistrates would not take such a trivial event as a good excuse for an adjournment.

Get your files ready. There are files you will sorely miss when Armageddon strikes. These are the files where you have completed your work, and all you need to do is prepare a bill. Guard them with your life. Take them to the top of your mountain or put them on your ark. When money loses its value, you may be able to barter with them for essential supplies.

But there are other files which might not be so valuable, such as those which have already been sitting in a corner of your room for the best part of the last millennium, and which are now so thick in dust that you dare not look inside them. These files should be left in the most vulnerable part of your office. If a volcano is predicted, leave them on the roof. But if soothsayers point to floods, put the files in the cellar. If your own reading of the tea leaves suggests that a plague of locusts is the front runner, just leave those files outside and let the little beasts gnaw them to shreds.

Not all may point to calamity. The excellent news that we are soon to have a Blairdonna and child may herald a time of calm, where the only minor glitch will be the wiping out of your entire client account on 31 December, or the eradication of 10 years of time records.Richard Barr is a consultant with Scott-Moncrieff & Associates @scottmoncrieff