Over the years I have confused and confounded some of my coworkers at the law firms I’ve worked at. I’ve been employed by some very conservative firms while also hosting late-night punk rock radio shows and I was even in a punk band in the early 90s. “How can you go from one world to another, Patti?” has been a question I’ve been asked on more than a few occasions. I’ve not always had a great answer to that question, I’ve usually just responded, “I don’t know, I just DO….” and “I take naps!” But in recent years I’ve come to a conclusion – I’m a chameleon. I have learned to adapt to just about every situation I’ve ever been thrown into, either by choice or necessity.
The law firm thing was necessity. I’ve always had to work and pay that rent! My first legal job in Houston, Texas, was with a solo practitioner named Fred. He was a closeted elderly gay lawyer who was missing an eye, had a terrible drinking problem and was dying of AIDS. He hired me because I knew how to type and did not have any legal background. He wanted to train me his own way. So I refer to my legal training as “The Fred School.” Fred paid me very well, and it gave me the experience I needed to jump into more legal secretary jobs. I miss Fred.
The Fred School launched my career into other legal jobs when I moved up here to Minneapolis from Houston, and the money just got better and better. Even though I’ve always had a rock and roll attitude, I’ve also been on my own since I was 17 and have been accustomed to taking care of myself.
I wasn’t necessarily “into” being a legal assistant or secretary, but it was the highest paying occupation I could do in the administrative field. I got better and better at it. I constantly refreshed my grammar and technical skills and learned legal terminology. I learned what many people go to college or business school to learn, and earned the respect of several attorneys whom I still use as personal references.
I’ve always had my own look and style I suppose, and even though I’ve gone to rock shows since I was 12 and have been sort of a freak (where I’m from “freak” is good, as in “freak of the week”), I’ve never felt the need to look terribly outrageous. My hair has always been the subject of conversations and I’ve never had to do anything to it to look weird. I’ve been able to adapt my style for offices that has somehow always “fit in” and been appropriate while being myself at the same time. Chameleon. Buy one nice suit for interviews – you don’t need to wear them all the time – that’s my credo.
In law firms, one thing I learned but I guess maybe I just inherently knew was that client service is the top priority. I had previously been a bank teller and mortgage service representative when I first got out of high school, and that experience helped immensely. Although sometimes in the legal secretary world it seemed like pleasing lawyers was the main goal, the bottom line was taking care of the clients’ needs, whether it was in business law or litigation. The client comes first.
Early in my legal career I worked at a small family law firm. We handled some extremely difficult divorce cases where there were child custody battles going on and many instances of domestic abuse. I spent a lot of time on the phone and in person with women who had never been alone before, and although we were swamped with work and quite honestly I didn’t always have the time, I let our clients talk for as long as they needed to. I found that I was able to summon up a lot of compassion, and I think that went a long way towards serving our clients.
After being in a couple of very small firms, I eventually went to work at larger downtown Minneapolis law firms where there was better money. Better money, but more stress perhaps. I must say that the more attorneys in the firm, the more opportunities for lawyer craziness. I came very, very close to losing my cool with many an attorney when they would come to me at 4:30 p.m. and tell me, “Oh, this needs to go out today.” I would just want to scream. Ok, so maybe I did scream on a couple of occasions, but I’d wait until I got into the restroom, and no one heard me. Most of the time I kept my cool though, taking deep breaths, and getting the job done. I’d mostly save the crying for when I got home. And a whole lot of swearing. Lots and lots of swearing.
Professionalism requires that differences between coworkers be worked out in a mature manner – it’s not always easy. I have found it best to try and be as direct as possible, if at all possible, and to not to let issues “fester.” I have found, though, that I haven’t always been able to control little whispering campaigns that get started in some of the offices I’ve worked at. Gossip is just evil and although I know I’ve been guilty of it, it’s highly unprofessional. I’ve been on the receiving end of gossip – it’s often hurtful and really has no place in the professional world.
Professionalism doesn’t require one to be uptight, unfriendly, and serious. It’s a balance of giving excellent customer service, fostering good relationships with coworkers, and doing the best work possible. Rock and roll, on the other hand, requires one to be professionally unprofessional, and that is the topic of another essay.