The Growth of Privacy; Day 20 –
The Enduring Lesson Of My Big Day in Dublin
FEBRUARY 25, 2020
Do you remember where you were on the 1st December 1995?
It was the day Bill Clinton came to Dublin on a triumphant visit to give his blessing to the then-nascent Good Friday Agreement, otherwise known as the Belfast Agreement, the pivotal agreement that brought an end to the 30 years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
On College Green 80,000 jubilant people gathering to welcome and be charmed by Slick Willie.
Around the corner in a basement on George’s Street I curled myself up in a ball and rocked back and forth giving a master class in usefulness to chocolate teapots everywhere.
You see I’d started my apprenticeship (as it was then called) to become a solicitor in October of that year. To say I was green and wet behind the ears would be to do a great disservice to frogs and raw recruits.
Yet somebody (who shall remain nameless) had thought that it would be a good idea to put me in control of a conveyancing file, a client was selling their home in one part of the city and purchasing a new one on the far side of town.
Now in fairness, as files go this was a pretty easy one. Sure it was a purchase and a sale but I was primarily concerned with the sale which, from a legal perspective, was very straightforward.
Now in my defence I had really been getting into it. I had my list and I was checking it twice.
I was learning this process for the first time and so was a particularly eager beaver to make sure I did everything one was supposed to.
In a conveyancing transaction, the primary function, the essential thing that you need to get done, is to transfer the legal title from the person selling the property to the person buying the property.
And this is done by what is called a deed of transfer. The solicitor for the person buying the property prepares this document.
Now, with the benefit of years of experience, I now know that unless you’ve actually gotten the name of whoever the thing is to be transferred to incorrect, then there’s not a lot you can do wrong with a deed of transfer. (And more importantly, anything you can is the purchaser’s problem.)
But, upper fastidious legal perfectionist that I was, and eager to show off how careful I was being, I sent the draft deed of transfer back to the solicitor for the purchaser requesting some completely inconsequential change.
The solicitor acting for the purchaser was an experienced sole practitioner who had no time whatsoever for my pedantry and quite sensibly simply ignored my suggested change. His client was the person who would be relying on the deed of transfer and he was perfectly satisfied with it the way that it was.
Meanwhile, I merrily went about my business. I honed and polished all of the other documentation required in connection with the transaction in exquisite detail.
All was in order. Practically beaming; I had all of this stuff meticulously arranged on the file: this would be a closing that would be spoken about for years to come.
But not quite for the reasons I had been hoping…
The big day dawned and I showed up for work for my first closing.
The client also showed up nice and early in the morning to get everything signed. Everything, that is, apart from the deed of transfer.
Then my big moment arrives, the purchaser’s solicitor shows up a the office to close the sale, which was required to be done first in order to provide the money to fund the subsequent purchase.
Into the big meeting room we go, me clasping my file.
We sit down across the table from one another, him with his list of completion requirements, me with my loaded bundle of documents.
And then he starts calling out his list:
“Deed of Transfer?”
“Deed of Transfer?!”
“Um, well, we’re waiting on you to come back with the final draft deed based on our suggested changes marked on your first draft…”
(Purchaser solicitor thinks: “WTAF?”)
“Oh, yeah, I sent you back the draft deed of transfer with amendments and we never heard from you so we don’t have a final version signed yet.”
I had had all of the other closing documents signed by the client.
At this point, the reality of the situation begins to dawn on me and I ask for a moment to go outside to have a mental breakdown.
With the benefit of twenty-five years hindsight, to say this is trivial is to make a bit of a meal of it. But right then, in that moment, my world was slowly capsizing. I had been given my first bit of responsibility in my first proper job and it looked like I was on headed towards an entirely avoidable train wreck of monumental proportions.
“Ok, ok, nobody panic, we’ll sort this.”
“So, let’s just call the client on her mobile and get her to pop back to sign the transfer.”
“Grand, hang on, no that won’t work, it’s 1995, we’re not all going to have mobiles until at least 1997.”
“We’ll email the deed to her and she can print it sign it and get it back here pronto.”
“Email? Have you seen the computers? They’re made by someone called Wang and have an eerie green glow. Rumour has it there’s some guy up on Dame Street still has a telex, otherwise we can send a fax on that nice shiny toilet paper it produces.”
“Ok, I know. We’ll get in a car, drive to the client get her to physically sign the transfer and drive back here with it. Problem solved.”
Only one problem with this: the house the lady is buying is in Castleknock.
In case you’re not familiar with Dublin, Castleknock is way out on the north side of the city. You get to it by driving through the Phoenix Park.
Now the thing is, it’s 1st December 1995, Bill Clinton’s in town for the biggest thing to hit Dublin since the Easter Rising and there are 80,000 people on College Green and Dame Street. We’re on George’s Street which is just off Dame Street and the whole area is cordoned off for one of the tightest security operations the city has ever seen.
And to top it off Bill is doing a courtesy call to Mary Robinson, the Irish President, who lives in, yes, the Phoenix Park…
So it was practically impossible to get from where we were on our side of the city to where the client was on the other side of the city to get her to sign the most important document of the entire transaction. And she thought she had been into the office nice and early in the morning to sign all of the documentation to avoid the possibility of this occurring in the first place.
Which of course she had; she just hadn’t accounted for the fact that I was the person dealing with it!
In the end, the sale did close; after the involvement of some far more senior and surer heads than mine and after my eternal mortification.
And while that day is most likely long forgotten in the memories of everyone involved, other than as the day Bill Clinton came to Dublin, it will forever live in my memory as having emblazoned one of the most important lessons I ever learned.
You really have to understand what is the most important thing. Everything that I had to prepare for that transaction was important but I had neglected the thing that was most important.
No matter how well prepared I was on all of the other things, without the most important thing, they were largely irrelevant. They were all necessary but simply insufficient.
And so the most important lesson for me was quite simply, when it comes to legal compliance, if you are going to do any of it, you had better make sure that you do all of it.
Particularly, the parts that most important.
Compliance is binary, you either compliant or you are not. Doing lots of little things because they are easy, affordable or require minimal change to how we do things is largely pointless unless we are taking care of the big things.
When it comes to privacy and data protection compliance the principles are the same; you need to understand what really matters and go all-in on that. It’s the difference between the false sense of security that comes from doing the wrong things efficiently and getting the important stuff done effectively.
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