After she graduated from law school, my sister Susan joined a law firm called Godfrey, Trump and Hayes. It was a small firm, but it had an excellent reputation, and so the office was consistently busy. Whenever incoming calls started to pile up, the GT&H receptionist moved through them very quickly. Often when I called Susan at work, it sounded like the receptionist was answering the phone saying, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes; how may I direct your call?” It was such an apt description of that busy little office that I got in the habit of calling Susan’s workplace “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes.”
Not only Susan, but also both of my brothers had gone into law; for a time, I thought that would also be my fate. It wasn’t, though: after college, I went to graduate school to study philosophy. Marquette paid me a stipend for my work as a Research Assistant; it was a generous stipend compared to other universities, but it wasn’t enough to pay my mounting medical bills. (For this story, go here). I needed to supplement my research assistantship income by getting a summer job.
Godfrey, Trump and Hayes had an opening for a deposition summarizer, and Susan
recommended me. Summarizing depositions was something I knew I could do and do well: after all, I aced the entire SRA series in grade school. (For those who weren’t around in the 1960’s, SRA was a reading program. Students read little articles about such topics as Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Nez Perce Indians, or the Great Wall of China and then answered reading comprehension questions about each one. As soon as a student scored 100% on a “level”—the levels were color-coded and increased in difficulty—she could move on to the next level.) I was not a good student at Christ King School (see here and here and here) but I loved SRA. Reading comprehension was my strong suit, and I finished the entire series in record time. Since my job at GT&H would involve reading depositions and summarizing their important points, I was confident that I could do this job and keep my doctor in Hush Puppies for a few years at least. (Yes, my doctor wore Hush Puppies; click here for that story).
The three attorneys who interviewed me were nice, but they struggled to get their minds around the idea of someone studying philosophy as a life choice. One of the partners, Wayne, just kept scratching his head—literally—and saying, “Philosophy? Hunh.” The second partner, Ed, tried to relate to me by saying “I think it’s just great that you are studying philosophy. I think that everyone in college should major in something completely useless.” I was unsure what my best response to this statement would be. Thanks? Or: I’m not in college? Or: Useless isn’t a positive descriptor? I just smiled and said, “Okay.” The third partner, Jim, didn’t say much but he smiled a lot and made a ton of eye contact. I was pretty sure I would have a decent summer working with this crew.
They asked me to start the next day. Since my classes were over for the semester and I had just completed my final research project, I agreed to be there at 8:30 a.m. sharp. I drove home feeling good about the shape my summer was taking; I would have preferred to spend those months reading novels and going to the beach, but reading actual legal cases and summarizing them would be kind of fun. The pay was good and the office was air-conditioned; best of all, my sister worked there, so I had an instant on-call partner for lunch.
The next morning I woke up early, ate breakfast, dressed in my best “L.A. Law” outfit, and caught the #31 bus for downtown Milwaukee. When I
arrived at Godfrey, Trump and Hayes, the receptionist told me that one of the partners had “a project” for me, and that I should wait for him in the Conference Room. Hmm, I thought. Project? That doesn’t sound like “deposition to summarize.” Maybe they just call unsummarized depositions “projects? Before I could ponder the meaning of “project” any further, the attorney named Jim shoved the door to the conference room open with his hip and entered, carrying a large box filled with papers. He heaved the box up onto the shiny conference table, and said, “Hi. Welcome to the firm. Glad to have you. These are fire reports. I need them organized by the end of the day.”
Fire reports? Wait. What? I had no idea what a “fire report” even was, much less how to organize a whole box of them. Where were my SRA-like depositions? Where I would demonstrate my excellent reading comprehension skills, if not learn more about Amelia Earhart? I looked at the box, then looked at him, cleared my throat and said hesitantly, “Umm…organize in what way?” As if he had been waiting for just that question, the-attorney-named-Jim dug through the box and pulled out a stack of binder sheets, each of which was accompanied by a little colored tab with a tiny strip of paper inside. He slapped those down on the table, and then pulled an actual binder out of the box. “Okay,” he said. “Here’s the drill. I am working on a case that has to do with faw faw faw faw faw faw.” He didn’t actually say “faw faw faw,” but that is what I heard, because he was talking about a lawsuit of some sort having to do with fire reports, whatever they were. Having grown up listening to my siblings talk incessantly about law, I had by that time perfected my habit of fixing an attentive look on my face while I visited the Playground in my Mind. Thus it was that my brain just sort of automatically shut down as soon as it heard words like “writ,” “discovery,” “due diligence,” “cause of action,” and “compensatory damages.”
“Okay, then; we’re good to go.” The attorney slapped the table in a friendly way and started for the door. “Wait!” I said. “I—um—I’m still not clear as to what my organizing principle is, and what I have to do with the actual fire reports.” Trying not to appear impatient, the attorney came back over, dug through the box, took out a sample fire report and said, “All you do is skim the report; if you see that this one is pertinent to my case, then put it in this binder here and separate the different months with these binder sheets. Write the name of the month on each binder sheet tab and you’re done!” He raised his eyebrows as if to say, “I can go now, right? I need to get to my Important Lawyering Business.”
I had one more question. “How do I tell if a fire report is pertinent to your case?” The-attorney-named-Jim reached into the box again and took out a sheaf of papers clipped together. “Here’s a description of the case. That will tell you all that you need to know. Thanks!” He winked at me and left the conference room.
Okay, I thought, so these aren’t depositions and this project sounds nothing like SRA, but I am a plucky person just like Grace on LA Law. I would have gone in search of my sister, but it was her day off, so I was on my own. Trying to stave off a burgeoning sense of panic, I took several deep breaths and poked my head out of the conference room to ask the receptionist where I was supposed to go to work on my “project.” I assumed that I would have a cubicle somewhere, or a quiet corner. “Oh, just stay right where you are,” she said. “Generally, we’ll just plant you in whatever office is empty that day, but all of our attorneys are in today so the Conference Room is our only open space.”
While it was a lovely space with large windows looking out over the Milwaukee skyline, a shiny mahogany table that could have seated the entire cast of Downton Abbey, and wall-length bookcases stuffed with impressive-looking legal tomes, it was also located in the middle of the office and had glass walls. Everyone who walked by would see me sitting there at the mahogany table organizing fire reports. I felt the way that a goldfish would feel if it had self-awareness: trapped and watched.
Looking down at the box of fire reports, I quickly realized that location was the least of my worries. I had to read through the clipped-together papers and understand them well enough to develop a rubric for organizing all those pieces of paper. Determined to remain calm, I took another deep breath and started reading.
Possibly as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Law Firm Version, I have no idea now what the case was about. I must have gleaned some sort of theme out of my reading, because I did start to read through the fire reports and make different piles depending on what they said. By the time I had finished, it was lunchtime, but I was pretty sure I had already taken too much time reading the fire reports when the attorney needed this project to be finished by 5:00 p.m., so I skipped lunch. I wasn’t hungry anyway, as my head was pounding, my throat was dry and I was a tiny bit queasy.
When I was certain that the fire reports were as organized as I could make them, I turned
my attention to the binder sheets. What did he say? Separate the months and write the name of each month on the tiny colored tab affixed to each binder sheet? Yes. That is my next task, I thought. But wait. The binder clips are moveable. They slide up and down the binder sheets. I have to make sure to fix them in place as firmly as I can, so that they all line up in one nice row down the binder. Carefully, I slid each binder clip to a spot about ½ inch from the top, so that when I laid all the binder sheets down together, each clip rested precisely on top of the one beneath it.
Proud that I had already completed at least half of my assigned task, I then turned my attention to the tiny slips of paper inside each clip. I knew I was supposed to write on those slips, but first I had to get them out of the plastic they were encased in. I picked, poked and prodded at the tabs for a while, to no avail. Finally, I went out to the receptionist and asked her for a pair of scissors. Without batting an eyelash, she opened a drawer, got out a large pair of scissors, and handed them to me.
Back in the conference room, I began the painstaking labor of prying each and every colored tab open with the scissors, no easy task with such large scissors. Once I had pried each tab open, I dutifully wrote the name of each month on each tiny piece of paper. Then I confronted my next challenge: now that the colored tabs had been pried open, how was I supposed to keep the little slips of paper from falling out?
Ever-resourceful, I again stepped out to the reception desk and asked for some Scotch Tape. The receptionist may well have wondered whether I was engaged in some sort of Girl Scout-type craft project back there (which would not have been good news, by the way, given my talents as a Girl Scout; see here), but she asked no questions. I headed back to the conference room with my tape, jubilant at my newly discovered problem-solving skills.
Tape in hand, I laid out each colored tab, secured the slip of paper in each, then heavily taped each one of them shut. What with some rough edges from all the prying-open-with-scissors and some awkwardly taped corners, the tabs were not exactly a thing of beauty, but I thought I had done quite well with the limited tools I had at my disposal.
Once all of the tabs were firmly taped shut, I re-attached each to its binder sheet and lined them up so that each clip once again rested directly on top of the one beneath it. That task completed, I was ready to load the whole pile into the designated binder and congratulate myself on a job well done. And it was only 3:30! Proudly, I left the conference room to find the-attorney-named-Jim and show him the result of my day’s work. He was on the phone when I knocked on his office door but gestured to me that I should wait for him in the Conference Room and he would be right over.
I am pretty sure I will never forget the look on the attorney’s face when he saw the finished Fire Report Project. I remember that there was a long moment of silence as he gazed down at the table where I had placed it. “Okay, so…” he began. Uh-oh, I thought.
“The idea of binder tabs is that you clip them to the binder page in a staggered format, so that they can actually be used to find the section that I would be looking for.” Ah, I thought. That does make sense. As I had arranged things, the only binder tab whose label was visible was the one on top. “Also?” the attorney went on. “Why, exactly did you purposely break and then repair each tab with tape?” Okay, I thought. I have an answer for that question.
“Well,” I said, “I knew you wanted each tab to have the name of a month on the little slip inside, so I had to figure out a way to get at the slip of paper, write down a month on it, and then put it back in the plastic so it wouldn’t fall out again.”
“Ah,” the attorney said. “But why didn’t you just slide the piece of paper out through the opening on either side like so?” And sure enough, he picked up an unused binder tab and easily slid the slip of paper out of the side opening.
I don’t remember how I responded to that question, but I do remember thinking that if the apocalypse was inevitable, this would be the ideal time for it to happen. I must have said something in response, and I do remember the attorney taking a deep breath and then saying nice things to me about “first day stress” and “getting the hang of things.” To his eternal credit, he didn’t point out that a first grader of even dubious intelligence would have known (1)how to get the paper out of a binder tab without needing a scissors to cut it open and (2)how to stagger binder tabs so that they could actually have a purpose. At that moment, I felt nothing like Grace on LA Law.
The-attorney-named-Jim looked at me for a moment and said, “Why don’t you kick off early today and head home? You can get a fresh start tomorrow.” I interpreted this to mean, “Go away! Get out of my sight! You are an incompetent fool! Leave!” I was powerfully tempted to do just that. Not only had I spent hours making clownish mistakes on the Fire Report Project; this was my sister’s law firm and I had besmirched the family name with my nearly comical level of incompetence. I wanted to run straight out of the law offices of Godfrey, Trump and Hayes and straight into a bowl of chocolate ice cream, but I had family honor to defend. I asked the-attorney-named-Jim if I could stay and redo the project, this time staggering the binder clips and opening them up instead of smashing them to bits and repairing them with tape. He agreed to let me do that, so I did.
When I got on the #31 bus for home that day, I was absolutely determined not to go back to Godfrey, Trump and Hayes. Ever. I had remedied the Fire Report Fiasco as best I could, but I had hated every minute of my day. I felt tired, stupid and embarrassed. I wanted to go home and stay there. When I arrived home, my sister and my mother were eager to hear about my first day on the new job. I burst into tears and told them the whole story. Not only did they not share my anguish; they both burst out laughing when I described opening each tab with a scissors.
“But how could you not know that there was an opening to slip the paper out? That’s hilarious!” my sister said. “That’s not stupid. That’s epic stupid!” Now feeling rather aggrieved after my difficult day, I told them that I was not going back the next day, or ever. I would write a nice note thanking them for the opportunity and saying goodbye. My sister stopped laughing and looked at me with steel in her gaze. “Oh no you don’t,” she said. “They were really nice to give you this job in the first place; no way is my sister going to be a quitter. Nope. Uh-uh. Not happening.”
I turned my most sad-eyed and mournful gaze on my mother. “Mo—om? Please? I can’t go back there. I’ll die if I have to go back there ever again!” My mother wasn’t going there with me. “Oh no,” she said. “None of that drama is going to work. You have a job. You did it badly. You will show up tomorrow and try to do it better. That’s it.” I cried. I begged. To no avail. And so it was that the next morning at 8 a.m., I was on the #31 bus for downtown, filled with dread, self-pity, resentment and fear. More than anything in the world, I wanted to jump off the bus, go home, get under the covers with my book and some chocolate, and never come out. But I stayed on the bus. I went to work. They were nice to me, and the attorney even said that once he got past all the mutilated tabs, I had organized the Fire Reports quite well.
I worked at Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes until my classes began again in September; they were very gracious and let me come back for several more summers after that one. I even came to enjoy the work and my bosses. I did, in fact, get to eat lunch with my sister now and then. I made enough money to pay my doctor bills. After that first day, I completed a variety of projects, but did indeed spend most of my time summarizing depositions, which I enjoyed nearly as much as I had once enjoyed SRA.
Because of all that summarizing, I learned a great deal about the relationship between above-ground swimming pools and the incidence of broken necks. I learned that if a company slaps a DO NOT JUMP OR DIVE sign on the side of their above-ground swimming pool but then runs newspapers ads showing people diving into said pool, well that company is in a heap of trouble. I learned that when lawyers at a deposition start to yell at each other and call each other names, I should record it in the summary as “colloquy.” I learned—from the lawyer named Wayne—that the way to win trials was to prepare about 225% as much as you think you will need in order to prevail. When I started to teach philosophy, I never forgot that lesson, and I am always about 225% prepared for each class I teach. That has turned out to be a good thing, because I am rarely thrown by whatever unexpected questions students ask. Best of all, years later when I assembled my portfolio into a binder before entering the job market in philosophy, I had already learned that I didn’t have to pry open all those tiny tabs. The slip of paper actually slides out quite easily. That’s good to know.