(from 100 Words per Minute: Tales From Behind Law Office Doors)
Noon to six. A veritable dream job.
I had sunk to a new low. Selecting jobs solely because of the hours. Who cares what kind of law they practice or what kind of people work there? Just as long as the hours were convenient. Noon to six. How lucky could I get?
I was approaching forty after all. The cranky Madame Middle Age was waving her crooked little fingers in my face, shouting, "What the hell are you waiting for?" I had always, in my spare time, been a musician of sorts. My fortieth birthday shook me into a momentary revision of priorities. I began writing music again, which led to recording, and even performing a bit on the side. Which led to staying up very late at night. So the ad for a floater secretary, noon to six, seemed like nothing less than a magical omen. Now I could sing and type.
smelled of radon or boron, something distinctly carcinogenic. The
building was a relatively new high-rise, magnificently situated on the
edge of landfill, overlooking The City in all its glory. When the
elevator doors opened, I did not have to look too far. Directly across
stood a set of monstrous mahogany doors, decorated with bold and very
gold letters announcing the firm’s title. This place wasn’t on
the eighteenth floor. It was
the eighteenth floor. The door was too heavy for me to pull with one
hand, so I hooked my purse over my shoulder and with both hands and a
good bit of traction, pulled it open and stepped inside. Like
“I’m here for the floater position,” I whispered to the top of a head that stuck out from behind a spit-shined mahogany reception station. I sensed a masculine fragrance, something limey with a hint of frangipani. “One moment, please” was followed by a small buzz of intercom, and then “Please be seated. Someone will be with you shortly.” The disembodied voice was polite but skirting the edges of curtness. I nodded to the mahogany counter top and found a seat in one of three matching mauve and cream (with faint specks of cerulean) love seats. The cerulean was picked up tastefully in the three Jackson Pollocky oils that decorated the foyer. Everywhere you looked, the Interior Designer’s concept repeated itself. Contemporary Dull. Almost inaudible smooth jazz oozed out of invisible spaces. I leafed through the magazine choices Business World, Investor’s Daily, Fortune, but even the ads were dry and disappointing. I waited some more, felt a chill of cold air on my neck (must be the forced air system), or was it coming from inside my skin? Men in suits, women in suits, breezed swiftly past me, coming and going, briefcases tight against their hips, like weapons, cocked and ready. The thick double doors left cool whooshes of air in their wake.
I rearranged my legs (shit, I didn’t wear pantyhose--what was I thinking?), but at least I had remembered to shave. I folded my legs as far back as they would go, debated between straight back and slumped back, when somewhere in midslump, a short, stocky woman approached me, her hand already out. I stood up to meet her, outstretched my hand, which she took and yanked once and then released. “I understand you are here for the floater position.”
“Follow me,” she instructed, and I did. She led me down one hallway and then another, silent, thick-carpeted and lined with books that appeared to have been shelved that very morning. Around the corner appeared a row of pale blue cubicles, facing away from the windows, facing into themselves, separating secretary after secretary after secretary (I counted twelve) until at last, at the very end of a very long aisle, I was led to what would be my work station. Imagine the din of a hundred and twenty clacking fingers. Imagine thinking you were about to fall off the end of the earth.
I allowed myself to be seated by the short, stocky woman, who informed me without so much as a smile that I should find everything in good order, and if there is something I need, I should write it on the blue requisition slip located in the second drawer down from the left. She handed me a document and asked me to read it carefully and buzz her extension (#259) when completed. She then turned and walked back down the aisle. I followed her waddling form until it turned into a door that opened quickly, then shut quickly, as if swallowing her in.
The clock above my desk clicked to One. I had been there an hour. Five more to go. Day one. I was counting already, counting the forms on my desk (five); blue requisition slips; pink inter-office memos; yellow expense reimbursement sheets; a kind of salmon color for “Attorney Work Assignments--Floater Desk Only” and a sickly grey pad marked “Request for Schedule Adjustment.” I readjusted myself, opened desk drawers, not a single speck of dust. Nothing but absolute and, I had to admit, very impressive order. Letterhead in tray one; draft paper in tray two; blue paper (MEMOS ONLY) in tray three. Printed envelopes, window envelopes, return envelopes (pre-stamped) and practically sealed.
I turned my attention to the document, addressed to me, well, to me in the sense that it said TO: FLOATER, RE: FIRM PROTOCOLS. There were five pages in all. Subheadings included Employee Rules, reminding me more than once that I was “at will”–-a no-nonsense expression indicating that the firm could axe me for no reason whatsoever. More subheadings entitled Document Guidelines, Attorney Work Designation Guidelines, Requisition Guidelines, even the guidelines had guidelines. Subparagraphs were dotted with bullet points; bullet points interrupted by occasional sub(a) and sub(b) paragraphs that invariably led to ominous and unequivocal warnings about consequences for failure to comply. This place wasn’t kidding.
As though she had been hiding behind my desk, watching me contemplate every bullet point, the short, stocky woman reappeared just as I had finished reading the last page. We were about to enter into her favorite aspect of the Employee Training Period. I was about to become hers.
All the years in those mom-and-pop plaintiff law firms had not prepared me in even the vaguest way for this type of office culture. Sure, the words were the same, plaintiff, defendant, cross-complainant, an occasional intervener. No matter which side they represented, all attorneys made the same objections based upon the grounds that respondent seeks documents and items which are protected by attorney/client privilege and the work product doctrine blah blah blah. Whether representing Standard Oil or Joe Klutz, everyone had to abide by the same court-mandated rules of procedure.
I had heard plenty of stories over the years about defense attorneys. I must have typed hundreds of letters to them, begging for mercy. These were the guys who defended mega corporations. They appeared to have endless resources that allowed them the luxury of burying poor pathetic plaintiff lawyers under mountains of discovery motions, all costly and exhausting. They were the Goliaths to all those dear Davids I had worked for. Plaintiff lawyers nicknamed them “Engulf and Devour” or simply referred to them as assholes.
And here I was, poking around inside their den, drinking their excellent coffee (a full range of muffins and fruit slices every Friday) and enjoying their well-stocked supply of top-of-the-line office equipment. Like the left-handed mouse that appeared on my desk shortly after I arrived. Incredible gesture, but creepy too. How could they possibly know I was left-handed? Were there cameras?
I stayed, I typed, I flubbed most of the protocol requirements. It was impossible, really, to line up the word text within one-eighth inch of the pre-numbered court-approved regulation paper. This was still the early days of Microsoft, and the most current MS-DOS version of Word did not have the fine lines down yet. Secretaries spent hours of their day niggling with margins and footers and footnotes so every line matched up. The short, stocky woman measured our work, quite literally, because the one-eighth-inch rule was paramount to her. No “widows” or “orphans” allowed by the short, stocky woman, who judged all secretarial work through thick magnified lenses, requiring that a document be perfect, even if it meant missing a court deadline.
Only once I crossed her. A critical Reply Brief was due. It was related to a Motion for Summary Judgment, a make-it or break-it document that has the power of altering the entire fate of a lawsuit. One thing I did know about was deadlines, and the damn reply brief had to be filed by or else. Still, the short, stocky woman insisted that I not send out any document before she inspected it for protocol violations. And this one, even I had to admit, contained more than a few faults. The Superior Court title line drooped a hair below the ruled number. I had fiddled with the margins, but Bill Gates still had more work to do and the program was not yet able to make the necessary micro-inch adjustments. The case name was italicized on page four and again on eighteen, underlined everywhere else. But it was almost four. The Court deadline ticked ever closer. The associate who gave me this particular assignment had been hovering around my desk. I could smell his sweat. My heart was with him, but I had to let him know my strict instructions were not to file anything without the administrator’s approval. He was now faced with an opportunity (which I expected he relished) to trump her outrageous abuse of authority. She may have been The Administrator, but she didn’t know shit about law. Only lines, rules, perfect bullet points.
The associate and I quickly agreed, without words, to do what had to be done. In battle, there are times soldiers have to make their own alliances. I handed him my version of the finished document, and he signed it swiftly, told me to get it out. I ran it over to the fax machine. Every page slid through as if on wings. Yes! I knew I had just blown paragraph eight subsection(e) of my protocol memo, and was damned proud of it.
After a while, the short, stocky woman backed off. The associate may have put in a good word for me or a word or two about her. When she passed me in the hallway, her greeting was so stiff it must have been painful on her tongue. I was absolutely certain that she loathed me. And why shouldn’t she? Who was I but a part-time floater? A nobody, lower case n. Here today and most likely gone tomorrow, like scads of others she’d witnessed over the past fifteen years. She certainly wasn’t going anywhere. This was her world, her rite of passage, her swan song too. It wasn’t unreasonable to imagine her dying there one day, a satisfied death, slumped over at her desk with red pen in hand.
Every month I stayed I felt like a spy, gleaning evidence that I might some day use with smug delight. I was dancing with the enemy, who, much to my surprise, turned out to be kind, respectful, and often entertaining individuals. The attorneys were decent people. No horns or fangs or crooked smiles. Same pictures of wives and kids in soccer clothes on the desks. They paid their secretaries well, as well they should. The secretaries deserved every dollar. They commuted long distances and devoted long years, approaching their work with clinical care. I stood beside them, and in their clear reflections could see that no matter how many years I did this kind of work, I would never be in their ranks. I was too flighty, too critical, too committed to lack of commitment. No matter what side of the law I worked in, it seemed I always wanted to be somewhere else.
Even from noon to six.