Saturday, March 22, 2014

The First Assignments

When I worked at the BigName Law Firm 1.0 a lifetime ago, I got a job as a paralegal assistant.  I was actually working in the mail room while finishing up college and after graduation, a PA position opened up. 

I was assigned to 3 paralegals:  Jane, Eileen and Denise.  Right off the bat, there was something off about Denise.  She seemed to be an airhead.  In fact, she single-handedly did her best to promote the dumb blonde stereotype.  The skinny from the other PAs was that the other paralegals didn't like her.  It took a while for me to learn why.  Apparently she wasn't someone you could count on to help out in a jam and towards the end of her time there, she really mailed it in.  She would leave her computer on and leave for hours to make it look like she was in the office working. 
It would have been tolerable if they had looked like these ladies

The idea behind the paralegal assistant position was that we would help out with tasks that paralegals couldn't bill a client for.  And that is one of the recurring themes from this period.  The war cry "I can't bill for that" was used so liberally whenever there was something that would be described as sh*t work that it lost any meaning.  Yes, a paralegal billing at $80 an hour probably shouldn't be bates stamping documents or running off to court to file a simple memorandum when a less expensive option is available.  But since we also operated on a needs to be done right away or yesterday model, there wasn't much in the way of workflow process.

The compromise was that PAs could bill if the situation allowed for it.  [Note: to give you an idea of just how SNAFU this place was, those two points were deduced and inferred over time instead of explicitly stated.]  We didn't generate our own work product, we were given -- or not given -- tasks by the paralegals.  No real training was baked into our workweek.  Secretly, it seemed our position was created to help with court runs because the paralegals didn't want to do it.

So one of the first assignments Eileen gave me wasn't much of an assignment at all.  It had more the makings of something to keep me busy. And slowly kill my brain.  She wanted me to count the number of pages in a copy job.  That's right.  We make a lot of copies in a law firm and even in the anarchic early 90s the copy machines had a mechanism to count the number of copies which would be placed on the return slip.

Eileen was convinced that the Copy Center was padding their numbers to make a little extra money.  I don't remember how much we charged for copies back then -- it was certainly higher than market value -- but let's say for argument it was a whopping 0.25 a page.  The only way this translates into anything significant is if they make 100 copies but charge you for a 1000.

Having me count each page isn't a good use of my time -- whatever you catch in their "error" is offset by my cost.  Granted my cost for that project was non-billable and my hourly pay was rather insignificant too.  Still, it really wasn't a good "project" to unload on anyone, especially a recent college grad with a desire to do more with his brain width.

In all fairness, I should have simply done the assignment without complaining and seen it as "paying my dues" and bond with Eileen by agreeing that yes the Copy Center pads their numbers.  Evil Bad.

I did the assignment in what is thought was an innovative, creative manner which should have demonstrate my abilities.  I measured one inch worth of documents, counted those and then measured the stack and calculated that the number given to us by copy center was indeed within the range we should have.  Eileen was pissed that I didn't simply do what she asked.  She made me recount the documents.


One time Denise asked me to do something.  While it certainly wasn't rocket science, it did have a certain level of complexity that required some explaining.  I honestly cannot remember exactly what and that's not important.  The point is that it probably took three times as long to explain what it was that she wanted me to do than to simply do it herself.   And I nonchalantly said something to that affect.  Not snooty or like it was beneath me...just a comment that "wow in the time it took [you to explain that 2 minute task to me], you could have done it yourself."  This wasn't even something she was going to give me on a regular basis.  It literally was something she dug up because she was asked to find something for me to do. 

And therein lies one of the many problems with that position and the culture in general.  They wanted these things called PAs to be available when they needed us but then wanted us to go away when the work was done.  There was no team building or skill training or even friendly bonding.  The concept of headcount justification was someone else's problem.


Jane had a better tolerance for dealing with me.  And we usually got along and worked together well, especially once I was promoted to full paralegal.  She had her own special quirks too.

When someone asks how your weekend was, generally speaking, they usually are only interested in a high level recap.  You went to a nice dinner on Friday, you took the kids to the zoo on Saturday.  You saw a cool movie on Sunday that you recommend everyone go see before the Oscars ruin it for you.

Other people are interested in the granular detail of what your kids said and did and whether you had buttered or salted popcorn at that movie.  Still others want high level some of the time and more details some of the time.

Jane didn't run in different modes.  You asked "how was your weekend" and she heard "tell me in excruciating detail all about your kids, your life and your dog until my ears bleed."  She could go on and on about the little things her kids did that wouldn't be interesting to blood grandparents but once you made the mistake of giving up the spotlight by talking about what you did (at a politer high level) you had to listen to what the kid did until someone else mercifully came along and interrupted your conversation.

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