The legal forger

I’d never heard of the prolific forger “Antique” Smith before I saw the email notification about the talk on him from the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. But I like archives, and history, and the fact there was a legal case that arose from it meant it sounded like an interesting outing. So last night I went along to the National Library of Scotland, where this talk was being hosted.

So, what did I learn? Mr Alexander Howland “Antique” Smith had quite a busy time of it between 1887 and 1893, churning out at least 500+ known (at a conservative estimate) forged manuscripts and letters attributed to a wide variety of well known people over all sorts of time periods. However, he seems to have had a particular liking for Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott….or maybe they were just more saleable items!

He was trained as a law clerk, in the firm of Thomas Henry Ferrier WS, and it seems that old legal documents stored in the firm may have been the early source for paper for his initial fakes. Apparently, the skills he would have learned in this role would also have been just what he needed to become a good forger – patience when drafting and copying lengthy documents, and attention to detail when drafting. Although he needed to pay a bit more attention to detail than he did in the end!

He was a very prolific forger, and used the flyleafs of period books bought secondhand as the basic material for his documents. He used various techniques to age them, including dipping them in weak tea, and rubbing dirt into creases to give the appearance of age, especially in areas where they would have been expected to be folded and refolded over the years. However, he was somewhat lacking on real attention to detail, and his forgeries were riddled with problems.

In the case of his forgeries of Scott’s letters, it was noted that his way of folding the letters he made differed from the way Scott would have folded them. Letters were regularly noted as being from specific locations, often some time after the real writer had moved away, e.g. Robert Burns apparently wrote a letter from a home he’d left a year before. One person wrote a letter, despite having been mortally wounded in a famous battle the day before. Cromwell wrote while in another city to the people who were be in charge of Glasgow, telling them to maintain order…but at that time, he was in Glasgow himself. Written materials which would not normally be signed, e.g. memos, had signatures attached, purely because it would make the letter more valuable. The paper he was writing many of his fakes on had a bluish tint, like the paper used for legal documents, rather than normal writing paper. He used modern (in the 1880s) pens and ink, there was no attempt to try and match the writing materials of the appropriate time periods. He would work around wormholes in old paper, giving the impression that the worms must have been considerate animals indeed. And his attempts at actually matching the handwriting, although probably informed by having seen some samples of the real writer’s style, were not hugely successful. Although in the case of Robert Burns, his own handwriting did vary with time…and drink!

Quite a catalogue of ineptitude!

Despite all this, he still managed to sell a lot of forgeries to a lot of people. There were a variety of wrangles prior to him being discovered as the creator of the forgeries. They related to manuscript collectors who had been defrauded, concerns about the honesty of the alleged document experts who had somehow vouched for the authenticity of these shoddy copies, charges brought in the Sheriff Court against Smith of theft/fraud (he was found not guilty), a case raised in the Court of Session in 1891 against a seller of some of the fake documents (the pursuer eventually instructed his law agents to drop the action, so it didn’t progress), and requests to have the disputed documents assessed by staff at the Faculty of Advocates to check their authenticity (an offer which the document expert refused to take up), he was identified as the originator of the flood of fake documents which had suddenly appeared on the collector’s market.

He was brought in front of the Court of Session in June 1893, on 4 charges relating to pretending to various booksellers and pawnbrokers that false documents were genuine. There were 98 examples of his work gathered as evidence against him, and together with the existence of his forgery hut/summerhouse (with its contents of pens, inks and books on copying handwriting) and the testimony of the many witnesses who had bought from him or seen him with a large volume of old documents, unsurprisingly he was found guilty on all charges. The recommendation from the jury was for leniency, so instead of penal servitude, he was sentenced to a year in prison. After he served this, he mostly drops out of history.

The irony is that, despite not being very good forgeries, Antique Smith’s fakes are now collectable items in their own right. To this day, they’re still being uncovered in archive collections around the world, have appeared listed as genuine in auction listings (although identified and removed from sale before the actual auction), and many more may lurk in the collections of notable families who kept quiet at the time of the trial, not wanting to admit that they’d been duped. However, if they were discovered now, the forgeries would be left physically untouched, with careful cataloguing demonstrating their provenance as forgeries. Unlike the examples we were shown from historic collections, which were gleefully marked repeatedly by some long-gone document manager with purple stamps saying “SPURIOUS”!

Outside, there were examples of original letters by Burns and Scott, and Antique Smith’s forgeries of these two author’s hands…I decided against testing my fake spotting skills though!

Your guess is as good as mine

Of course, what I want to do today is start looking in the Session Cases and see if it’s a reported case….

Tips for the traumatised: surviving administration and mergers

Let me begin by confessing: I am not a law firm lucky charm. I’ve worked for 2 different firms over a period of 18 months, both of which went into administration or merged with another firm, which left me unemployed twice in a short period of time.

Unfortunately, my story isn’t unusual: changes in the legal market mean that these sort of events will happen more and more frequently, especially in the mid-sized law firms. My Nostradamus moment now is to predict that most mid-sized firms won’t exist within 5 years, as they get eaten up by the bigger firms, or split down into smaller, niche firms.

So if you’re working in a small or mid-sized firm: you’re in a very risky position right now. So what can you do to both plan for the potential experience of having a job that disappears, and to get through it successfully? I’m going to give you some tips on what to do, when, and how to get through this. And I’ll be honest: a lot of this is unpleasant, but you can get through to the other side intact.

Before changes

See the signs: You need to be plugged into the internal gossip machine, for your own benefit. People talk – it’s wise to listen, and look for the oddities that signal problems. Listen for fee-earner gossip: are junior staff in all sorts of departments complaining about not being able to meet their target for billable hours because there’s just not enough work being passed to them? Are partners hiding in their rooms or working from home, to avoid having to really speak to their teams? Watch out for those odd “partners from different departments who don’t normally have anything to do with each other” meetings starting to happen. Secretaries being asked to block out many hours in diaries for people…with no client meetings or reasons given. Or the all partner, off-site meetings…that go on for two days. Librarians at other firms that may be merger partners will be noticing odd activities too, or may have been asked to research your firms finances. Make sure you’re open with your professional network about unusual activities at your firm, as it gives other information professionals the chance to volunteer information that they’ve gathered. There will also be a mysteriously delayed issuing of the annual accounts, with various “interesting” excuses being given, and getting more abrupt as the lateness increases. There will be firm denials in the press by management of there being any trouble internally. Credit checking companies will be red flagging you as a risk because you pay bills so late. Suppliers will not be being paid, but you will only find this out if you contact them directly to check, or they contact you to complain, because your Finance department will insist that they’ve been paid. Honest. Cross their heart.

Prepare for the worst: go through your work, and identify your useful/transferable work. Gather non-sensitive work you have produced/remove to cloud storage if possible. If you can’t move it off your firms network by upload, try and get a record of it some other way: download, screenshot or photograph it. The administrators or merger managers are not interested in the work of support staff – it will be ignored during these processes, and holds no financial value for them. The only value it holds is for you, for the future, for generic activities such as training materials you’ve developed for educating internal users on subscription databases. ( Disclaimer one – Only you can make the decision on what materials it is legal for you to remove. Disclaimer two – some of these content tools might be blocked by your employer.). If you don’t have one already, get a “professional” email address (gmail is fine) – if your name/initials combination isn’t available, create one using information and knowledge-related terms. Move all account contacts to the new account: social media, mailing lists, LinkedIn etc. You can’t predict when your access to your work email will stop.

Prepare for the best: It may well be that any merger partner firm needs information staff, so there could be a place for you in a new structure. However, like any other employer, they’ll want you to be able to prove to them that you’re good at what you do, and your salary will take that into account. So now is a good time to gather statistics and evidence to show what you do, and what you can do. If you charge out for your time, gather the information that shows exactly what money you’ve brought in. Equip yourself with any facts or figures that help you to make a business case to demonstrate why you and/or your team are an asset.

Make yourself visible to the world: if you aren’t already using social media, now is the time to start. Create a Twitter profile, where you can show your awareness of relevant issues by tweeting links or discussing them with others. Most importantly, create a LinkedIn account, and make sure you organise it to show your best skills and achievements (LinkedIn content layout can be personalised). This is useful for both internal and external promotional purposes: if your firm is going into administration, other law firms need to be able to see immediately what your skills are, and why you’d be an asset. If you’re merging, you want to be able to easily give the takeover firm as much information about your usefulness as possible. They won’t know about the awesome projects you’ve been responsible for internally, they’re highly unlikely to actually come to you to ask about your skills, so you need a place they can look at that hosts all your achievements, to be able to show them. Ask colleagues to endorse you for useful activities – people will be doing their best to help you, so agree the text in advance to ensure it shows your best skills in the best way.

Build up an application bank: create a variety of clear descriptions of your specialist and transferable skills. If you struggle with this, ask workmates to identify what they think your key skills and achievements are. Use these to help speed up the process when applying for jobs by tying these relevant phrases to frequently requested skills. Create a tailored base CV for each role type you’re targeting, drawing out different elements of your skills as appropriate.

Expand your vocabulary: yes, right now you’re a specialist librarian, but your skills are also incredibly wide-ranging and your employment prospects are too. You’re experienced in doing targeted research: use those skills now on your own behalf – compile a list of search terms and work them on search engines! Develop a level of awareness of key potential employers, and start monitoring vacancies before you may think you’ll need to actually apply to anything – knowing how long jobs are advertised for, and how quickly after they appear they can disappear, can help focus you on being prepared and able to apply for jobs as quickly as possible after they’re advertised. Be organised about your applications: a spreadsheet helps manage and prioritise relevant jobs (and ensures you know when your submission deadlines are). It didn’t used to be easy, but it’s far more achievable now to move between a variety of sectors, as” information management” becomes more clearly recognised as a relevant skill, rather than being buried within the term “librarian”. Jobs I was interviewed for: Open Access Publications Assistant, eHealth Project Officer; Grants Officer; Awards Administrator; Research and Information Officer, Contracts Manager, Information Officer; Research and Information Specialist, Legal and Business Intelligence Analyst, and another Project Officer. And don’t rule out the Intelligence Services too – I won’t say how far I got in their application process, but let’s just say your skills at assessing information sources and extracting relevant information from them are useful in all sorts of roles! 😉

During changes

Don’t be ignored: if your firm is merging, nobody will be sparing a thought for you, or about asking you to be involved in any discussions. This creates a huge risk that your department and team will be forgotten about in the frantic activity that goes on during the merger process. This is the point to start jumping up and down in front of the right people, with big signs pointing towards you that say “I’m wonderful!”. If you have a library partner, you can try and get them to ensure that you’re involved in relevant discussions, but remember, you will never be their priority, they have a “core” team that they will be trying to ensure are safe first, before they can spare any time or energy to help you.

Focus your energy: In a merger I was involved in, we began the process of creating the business case for our retention in the new firm, but quickly decided to use our energy in looking for employment externally when we realised from discussions with the library staff on the other side that there was no intention of moving my team across.

Play nice: if your firm is merging/being taken over, make sure that the information professionals on the other side of the merger get all the information they need from you, as soon as possible. Spend any time needed to tidy up your materials, both physically and digitally – it’s good manners and reflects well on you professionally, and at this point your professional reputation is one of your main assets. Contact your suppliers directly if you can: they will have questions about your subscriptions and services, and you can give them the appropriate information on who to contact, and a realistic assessment of the chances of them receiving payment or a subscription being continued. Again, being polite and helpful to people, especially when you don’t have to be, means that your professional reputation is enhanced with people who may be of use to you in future.

After changes

Professional support: this is the bad bit – there is none, in practical terms. You will watch as the lawyers are offered hardship funds and training support from their professional bodies and groups, and their professional bodies issue press releases to the media about how excellent they are, and how quickly they’ve all been re-employed, but there will be nothing equivalent for you from any of the professional bodies you may be a member of. Sympathy, yes, but no practical help. You’re on your own.

State support: the Job Centre staff will not be of any help. They do not know what to do with specialist librarians. Even your existence baffles them. Learn about the various rules, procedures, and entitlements available to you, but expect no actual, direct help: you’re on your own. Again.

Network and talk: You will almost certainly feel traumatised by these processes, either insolvency or redundancy. Learn to separate your sense of worth from your employment – you are not responsible for what happened to you. Tell people what happened (while maintaining a professional “I don’t blame anyone” front). Make people aware you need employment. Let them help you. Be active on LinkedIn (and be amused at the ridiculous amount of people who’ll check out your profile during this period).

Now, this isn’t a foolproof guide, just an attempt to give anyone facing what I’ve been through a bit of guidance, help, and support to know that it’s survivable. Others who have been through similar situations have had input into this too, so hopefully, it’s now as useful a collation of information as it can be.

And finally, just remember: illegitimi non carborundum.

It’s not just librarians who suffer from stereotyping

Unfortunately, lawyers get it too…and one of the best (for best, read “irritating and patronising”) ones is the Legally Blonde female lawyer.

Y’know – that attractive yet dumb blonde girl who floats through life, until an major event makes her re-evaluate everything, and then she works her socks off to show everyone how smart she really is?

Seems like the BBC have been watching a few too many repeats of that film recently, judging from their reporting of this story (although Legally Blonde isn’t specifically mentioned in the report).

Look: she’s blonde!
Look: she’s pretty!
Look: she used to work in a beauty-based job! That means she must be stupid!
Look: she went to court to battle on her Mum’s behalf! Isn’t that an unexpected event!
Look: she’s studied to become a lawyer! And excelled at her studies!
Look: she’s actually really, really smart! Who could have imagined?

Dear god – all it needs is her bust size, and a hint that she’ll be sleeping with powerful people in law firms in order to get a job, and it could be a Daily Mail report.

Really, BBC, is this the best way you could report this? The undertone of surprise that someone female, blonde and pretty could also actually be really rather intelligent, and able to make full use of an amazing opportunity when it’s presented to her, is quite disturbing. For a profession that’s working its socks off to try and address inequalities in the representation of women, this sort of patronising reporting undermines everything that women in law have worked so hard to get…you know, that small thing called “recognition of their equal skills”?

Potay-to, potah-to, librarian, lawyer

Recently, for the first time, I’m involved in a stressy legal transaction. I’ve sold one property, and I’m buying another – when I bought the first property, I was a first time buyer: no chain, no issues, just finances to get sorted, and conveyancing fees to pay. This time around, I have the finances of the property I’m leaving (along with any final bill from the Totally Incompetent and Deeply Hated Factoring Company) to deal with, a new mortgage to apply for, the transfer of the old mortgage from the old mortgage company to the new mortgage company, the transfer of mortgage cash and deposit to the owner of the property I’m buying, and legal/conveyancing fees for buying and selling to cover. So, while one property’s definitely sold, I’m still waiting for confirmation of the one that I’ve bought is officially bought.

Now, as a librarian, I deal with information. My users ask me for information all the time, and I try and get it for them. Sometimes, this information can take longer to get, or is trickier to source than expected. I know my users have various others depending on them, so they need to know when they’ll get that information, or at least be able to tell interested parties that they are working on the issue, and hope to give them a response in X hours/days. So I try and ensure that my users know how long something might take, or if something’s taking longer than expected, I’ll call/email to let them know I’m working on it. It’s important to pass on that sort of thing, as, even if your update is “I’ve been busy, I’ve not started this yet, but expect to be able to get to it this afternoon/tomorrow morning” etc, then everyone’s kept informed, and able to explain to others what’s going on.
My lawyer (and, it appears, most lawyers involved in conveyancing transactions) do not share this approach. 
Today I emailed after 8 days without contact (and I move out/in in 14-16 days), to be told, effectively “things are happening, but nothing worth telling you about yet”. Which is fine – things are moving along as they should. But as a user, I would prefer to have been given an occasional contact which said something along those lines, to reassure me that there was progress. Instead, I have been gradually fretting more and more that I am going to be homeless/the sale will fall through/I’ll need to find temporary accommodation and storage for my belongings/where will everything go/how will I continue to get to work/I don’t have enough holidays to cover 2 moving dates, until I finally contacted my solicitor for an update.
Is it a cultural thing? Are librarians trained to make information sharing easier, and are therefore more open about the information they have, and when it will be available to their users, while lawyers focus on commercial secrets, and making sure their profession has some sort of air of mystery? One where solicitors are beavering away in darkened offices, doing arcane Legal Things that us plebs just wouldn’t be able to understand, so there’s no point telling us about them?