If you see lawyers on TV and in movies you probably think there are two kinds of lawyers. The good guys: handsome, articulate, witty and always honest and fair and the bad guys: sneaky, crooked, unethical. In my experience, this is FAR from true. The lawyers with the best reputations in a major city will act one way in court and a whole other way to their own staff. Here is a collection of true events that happened in law firms that this author has either personally witnessed or has heard from first-hand witnesses:
* One of the largest firms in this Midwestern city had a policy that existed clear up thru the 1990’s of never hiring secretaries who were older than 30 years old. They didn’t say it outright but as a 32 year old qualified applicant for a job there, I was asked if I played softball (not really) and told that the partners preferred athletic girls since they went to the games and “enjoyed watching the girls run the bases.” Yeah, I’ll bet they did. I didn’t get the job even after they told me that I got the highest score on their employment testing anyone had ever received.
* That same firm had a “no slacks policy”. This was iron-clad even for those on their night shift (when clients were never seen) and in areas where clients never ventured, even during a noted blizzard. Dresses and skirts were the only acceptable attire for their all-female clerical staff.
* One firm disciplined an employee when she was seen in her car in the parking garage after work. She had a “Sh!t happens” bumper sticker on her car. “Our employees have too much class to display vulgarities,” she was told.
* One law firm abruptly canceled Christmas bonuses one year because “we remodeled the lobby and that is our gift to you this year.” (Do I even have to state that the employees saw it very briefly when they passed through on their way to their desks and were never permitted to sit in the lobby chairs, even if they were clocked out and waiting for someone with whom they were carpooling?)
* Another firm gave bonuses but the partners haggled about it every year so that employees often didn’t know till the 24th whether they were getting anything. Some years there was no bonus, some years, it was generous and it rarely corresponded to what kind of year the firm had. It just depended on how much the other guys could talk that one person out of.
* Then there was the senior partner at one particularly stodgy firm who thought he was getting off easy one year when Christmas fell on a weekend. He was delighted not to have to give his employees a day off. Unbeknownst to him, his partner told the staff they could take the Friday before Christmas off. When “Mr. Scrooge” came in that Christmas Eve expecting to find his staff hard at work, he was quite displeased. No staffer got a raise that year and he didn’t say “good morning” to any of the staff until Good Friday. The firm policy had always been that employees got to take a long lunch hour if they were going to attend noon church services. “Mr. Scrooge” commenced speaking to the employees on Good Friday early in the morning when he announced the cancellation of that policy at the same time as his announcement that he was taking off that afternoon to play golf. This was unprecedented but was obviously his way of showing the employees who was the boss.
* One firm had a huge annual Christmas party. Employees hand wrote the envelopes inviting clients, referral sources, prominent attorneys, etc. The attorneys, paralegals, law clerks and spouses of all the above were always invited. The “girls” (as the secretaries were uniformly referred to) were never invited to the party but the leftovers were always brought in the following day as a “special treat” for “the girls.”
* Another law firm had an annual summer meeting out of town for the partners in the firm. At that meeting, it was decided what kind of year the firm was having. If it was decided that this wasn’t as good a year as some others, employees would start seeing senior management partners wandering the halls with note pads and woe be it to anyone who was seen pausing to speak to a coworker, coming in at all late, etc. Those things would show up on employee reviews to justify why no one was getting much of a raise that year.
* One Office Manager I worked for hired one of her long-time friends as a secretary and when the woman turned out to be a kleptomaniac, Office Manager refused to fire her the first several times it happened. Eventually, the old pal was caught red-handed, with her hand literally in a co-worker’s purse, and Office Manager had no choice but to fire her pal. But she didn’t take back her key to the office, allowed her to clear out her desk on a weekend without supervision, and was the only person surprised when the supply closet was nearly empty come Monday morning, and even things like printer cartridges for the copier disappeared.
* One friend worked briefly at a very interesting law firm. She was told that she had to keep a timesheet logging what she did all day and that her hours would be billed to the clients. This is most unusual. Secretarial time is rarely ever a billed item. She was told “don’t worry about it, we’ll call you a paralegal on the bill” (but of course, they weren’t paying her to be a paralegal.) As if that wasn’t enough, she was called on the carpet a few weeks later and asked why she hadn’t turned in a weekend time sheet. She was mystified and it was explained to her that they cared about what she did on her own time. They wanted to know she was “the right kind of person” and for that they needed to know what percentage of her time was devoted to religious observation, socializing, etc. She was told by coworkers to be careful in the lunch room as it was bugged.
* One female attorney I knew had a very timid little secretary who was absolutely scared to death of her. When the attorney’s beady eyes would land on “Jane,” she would instantly become tongue tied. I witnessed an exchange one day when Jane was to file something in the court for her attorney boss and had to request funds from the firm to cover the filing fees. Jane knew it cost $150 to file this particular type of case. When asked how much the fee was, she stammered “uh, I think it costs $150.” Bad choice of words. “You THINK? You don’t KNOW??? Call the court right now and find out.” The attorney marched out only to reappear a few minutes later as Jane frantically dialed the court’s number over and over getting a busy signal every time. “Did you reach the Court yet?” “It’s busy, I’m trying.” “Well, DIAL HARDER!”
* I’ve seen several firms that had coffee and/or soft drinks available for attorneys and clients but not available for secretaries.
The bottom line is this: if you want to be treated like a human being, you don’t want a job as a secretary — especially not in a law firm.