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Work Identity Crisis

When I tell people I’m a legal secretary I get varied responses.  Some people are impressed.  Others not so much (these are the smart ones).  Still others want legal advice.  Yeah, really.  I don’t know what part of secretary they don’t get.  You’d be amazed at how easily people will start spouting off the details of their teen’s marijuana bust or their spouse’s DUI.  I’ve learned to give them the “deer in the headlights” stare and tell them I work in energy law.  What?  It’s the truth.  Yes there is too such a thing! 

While I sort of accidentally became a legal secretary, I believe it was my destiny all along.  Because of the way it all began I felt like a fraud for a very long time.  I sometimes still feel that way, worried someone will find me out.

About 26 years ago I was re-entering the work force when my youngest daughter was almost one.  I hadn’t worked in over a year and I didn’t have a lot of experience at anything in particular so I went to a temp agency.  The first place they sent me was a company that handled product placement in movies – very cool.  FREE Little Debbie’s!  Sadly I was just filling in for a secretary who was on vacation or something and I had to move on.  The last job they sent me on turned out to be a clerical position in the Human Resources department of a major insurance company.  They liked my work and arranged to hire me for a regular full time position once their temporary contract was up.  Woo hoo!!  Benefits!!

Because of an excellent in-house hiring process I was able to move from HR into their Legal Department in less than a year.  This was sort of pretend law.  Not that it wasn’t serious business, but the attorneys there acted more as mediators representing in-house insurance clients and consulting private practice lawyers on their behalf.  This meant we wrote a LOT of internal memos briefing clients on the pros and cons of their legal position as well as advising them how to proceed.  I worked there for about five years before moving on to a REAL legal secretarial position in an Attorney General’s office.

The AG’s office was my first introduction to drafting and filing real legal pleadings with the court.  I was a basket case for the entire first month, absolutely certain I was going to fuck up a filing or service or something.  This might not sound like a big deal but here’s an example – remember the big tobacco case that was going on in multiple states awhile back?  One of the AG offices working on the case overlooked a filing deadline and didn’t get their response in on time, which resulted in a HUGE bruhaha and almost got the state tossed out of the case.  I’ll bet heads rolled at the staff level after that snafu.

After five years there I was a little burned out.  My department defended the State and state employees when prison inmates sued.  And inmates sued at the drop of a hat.  Crumble their cake?  Expect to see your name on a civil rights complaint.  Step on their toe?  Unnecessary force.  Take away their pot?  Violating their religious rights.  Seriously – this happened.  An inmate claimed to be Rastafarian and said he was required to use pot in the rituals he had to practice.  Then there were the Native American inmates who complained about not having a sweat lodge.   Not to mention the mothers and wives and girlfriends who called the office to harass us because their little darlings were innocent!!  That got old in a BIG FAT HURRY!  I moved to the environmental department and worked there for a year or so before my new hubby and I moved on.  This time to Washington state, where I started working in an actual private law firm for the first time ever.  Talk about culture shock!

If you’ve ever worked for the government you’ll have some idea of the level of technology and equipment we had at the AG’s office.  They barely had email when I was there!  The fax machines used the thermal paper that came in rolls.  Plus in addition to transcribing dictation, proofreading pleadings and preparing exhibits we did the grunt work ourselves:  copying, filing, court runs, etc.  Working at BIG LAW was a revelation!  I had my own file clerk!  Okay, I shared a file clerk with the other secretaries in my practice group.  There was a photocopy center!  And messengers handled our filings and service.  Plus we had email and internet access on every single computer!  May we have a moment of silence in recognition of the awe this inspired in 1998?  I’m serious – just before we moved to Washington, we’d gotten internet at home for the first time using WebTV which used your television as the monitor. 

Can you say intimidating?!  Wow, I had no idea what a poor excuse for a legal secretary I really was!   Some of the secretaries I was now working with had been on the job for DECADES.  They could take shorthand, type over 100 words per minute, keep the coffee pot full, and file appellate briefs with one hand tied behind their back.  Alright, I made up the last couple.  But they knew their stuff and I was completely overwhelmed, certain someone would suddenly point at me and say I was a big faker.

Thirteen years later I’m still with BIG LAW.  I am at times overwhelmed by my To Do list and filing deadlines and I can freak out when trying to balance all the work for my four attorneys. But I’m still here.  Through thirteen years, two or three layoffs and one merger I’m still here.  That’s got to count for something, right?  If I’ve fooled them for 13 years maybe I am the genuine article.

6 thoughts on “Work Identity Crisis

  1. My Mom-in-Law (RIP Mom, miss ya) was a legal secretary for a lifetime and was one of those who typed like 568,456,416 words per minute, while answering the phone with one hand and pouring coffee with her other. She was wicked smart, and seriously, seriously fun to be around…..Sounds like someone else I know Bubbe! Me? I unpack boxes for a living but I totally ROCK at it!

    • I packed boxes for awhile pre-first marriage and kids. I kind of liked that job. I’ll bet you totally ROCK it!! I think I would have liked your mom 🙂

  2. Bubbe, you do legal stuff and still have a job, so I’m thinking you’re pretty damn good. Like you said (using different words), one slip up, and POOF, there goes a bazillion dollars.

    Me, I used to run multi-million dollar car companies. And at one point, I was a Corporate Officer for Chrysler.

    Now, I do titles and bank reconciliations for a motorcycle/ATV dealership. It’s what I did when I got out of high school! But I don’t mind. There’s no stress and I’m only 3 minutes from home and 10 minutes from my son’s school! PLUS I get paid to run to the bank AND Starbucks!

    But YOU…YOU go girl! Keep those lawyers rolling in the dough and I hope they appreciate ALL that YOU do! Without you legal secretaries, they’d be up a creek without a paddle!

    • I LOVE that you’re only 3 minutes from home AND that you get paid to do coffee runs! Moving to Washington was culture shock in more ways than one. My job at the AG’s office was only 10 minutes from home, unless it was winter time. When my car broke down I could ride my bike to work! (Of course I was much younger then and in better shape.) Before we lost the farm last year my commute was 2+ hours EACH FRIGGIN’ WAY! That took some getting used to.

      I’m truly blessed with the attorneys I work directly with. It’s definitely nice to be appreciated. 🙂

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