(from 100 Words per Minute: Tales From Behind Law Office Doors)
I could hear her footsteps coming down the thick, institutionally elegant carpet. It wasn’t really a sound I heard, more like a shift in air pressure, thickening and narrowing as she swathed wide steps toward her office door, and inevitably toward me.
Each footstep quickened my pulse, my fingertips firmed themselves tighter on the keyboard, and with one eye I double-checked to see that yesterday’s documents had indeed been completed and were waiting in my OUT box for her approval. With my other eye, I checked the message box. Empty. Good. I had not forgotten a thing.
Weeks from a huge trial, she had also just lost a critical motion to allow an expert witness testimony. This all contributed to a more than normally foul mood, making it a particularly bad time to be her secretary. I tried to shrink down behind the mountains of paper on my desk. Look busy, I whispered to myself, but of course I looked busy. I was busy, and why couldn’t she see that?
Door closes behind her, I release a short sigh, and a little bit of spittle slides out. I wipe, then continue to type. Maybe today she’ll stay in there and leave me the hell alone.
The buzzer on her telephone sends out a current not unlike an electric jolt, low in pitch but painful with anticipation, reminding me of the dentist’s drill that flicks on loud before it finally finds its mark. Her voice is thick and raspy, an instrument that could use a good cleaning, maybe a swab of essential oil.
“Did the requests go out?” were her first words to me. I wanted so much to respond with “And good morning to you,” but she would have missed the innuendo entirely.
The day before, I had completed not one but eight separate sets of discovery requests, sent to five different defendants involved in a multi-car crash, the middle car of which would bring a significant sum, since it held a year-old baby beheaded by the jolt and a young mother who had yet to regain consciousness. And lucky for her that she hadn’t.
And then another case that required two sets of interrogatories, Form and Special, and our responses to their requests, standard stuff, in which our client admitted to absolutely nothing, or objected to being asked to admit to anything, or argued that their admission would not lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, so bugger off, in so many words.
And there was more. I also finalized and mailed sixty-seven Special Interrogatory responses in a case involving an obese woman who, while leaning across the seat to reach her morning bag of jelly donuts, failed to see the construction truck spewing dangerous and negligent dust clouds in the early morning freeway mist.
Oh yes, and there was the basic set of Requests for Admissions to the slob whose broken truck blocked a driveway entrance. Our poor client, deep in a cell phone conversation, missed him altogether.
When I thought about her question, I realized that yesterday I had probably completed eleven, not eight, discovery sets, both propounded, responded or objected to, and so her question needed some clarification. I pushed my end of the telephone connection, fine-tuned my inflection so as to both embrace and assuage her concerns.
“Copies of all the requests are in your box.” Just to be sure, I looked again. Yes, they were still there. Hole- punched and copied and just dying for approval.
“Which requests do you mean?” she snapped back. She had me in her favorite hold--confuse and conquer. She will look for a flaw in my thinking, an overstatement, a crevice where misunderstanding can edge its way in and fester. She was a consummate litigator. She drew both pleasure and pain from verbal abuse, questioning her opponents into confusion, uncertainty, and ultimately, her favorite position, submission and degradation. She made no distinction between those she was suing and those she employed to help her sue.
“Which requests do you mean?” I shot back, knowing this would sharpen her further, maybe even cause her to get out of her chair, leave behind a cooling cup of coffee, which would turn the color of sludge by day’s end.
The intercom clicked dead. I heard her chair scrape back, heard the footsteps, counted them, (there would be eight in all) and then she was standing at my desk in full battle formation. I might even win this battle. But the war was all hers.
Memories of our initial meeting leave me wistful and without trust in my ability to know a goddamned thing about people. She was dynamic, entertaining, foxy in a tasteful sort of way. She believed in important causes. She had absolutely fabulous taste in art, wore the perfect amount of perfume, something expensive and French. Pictures of beautiful people accented her desk, a man so stunning I felt guilty sneaking glances. She seemed as if she might be inspirational, and after the initial interview, I fantasized sipping Port together (in lower right cabinet), feet up at the end of a day of disastrous victories, brilliant litigator, brilliant secretary, fighting the good fight.
I would work for this she-lion of a litigator for one week shy of a year. In that short time she destroyed whatever confidence I had managed to gather during a decade of legal work. Maybe it was just a woman thing. Two cats clawing in opposing directions. The day I finally walked out, I was only a little proud of myself. Mostly, I felt small, shattered, an insignificant pulp of disappointment, only slightly ready to edge out and try it all once again.