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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Messing With the Totem Pole

Every work environment has its invisible ladder of authority. I'm not talking about the one we all know. In the regular law firm, the regular ladder looks like this, to varying degrees: Senior partner, junior partner, senior associate, junior associate, senior staff, junior staff, etc. I hesitate to divide support staff into different levels of authority because there are plenty of secretaries and receptionists who could kick my young paralegal butt. But of course, that is a perfect example of the "invisible" ladder to which I refer. We all think we know and understand the hierarchy, but sometimes the most unassuming positions hold great unseen authority.

In my firm, I am the Second In Charge. Actually, that is by default, since the firm is pretty much the Boss and me. I would like to believe I hold some sort of authority over the fish, but there still seems to be a slight power struggle involving how much algae we allow to grow in the tank. It's an ongoing battle.

My Boyfriend the Lawyer has mentioned more than once that the natural order has been disrupted in his government job, where time on the job often seems to command more respect than does one's title and level of education. Of course, I'll be the first to agree that experience, in many ways, trumps title - at least when you aren't looking on paper.

I write about these things because the Boss and I had a delightful conversation today about what he would do if the firm made millions of dollars - whether he would retire to the Carribean or stay on for the sheer love of the law. I told him that whatever he does, he needs to be sure not to leave me at the firm with snarky jerkfaces for lawyers. (They are out there. And if you don't believe me, check out some of the posts and comments at Bitter Lawyer sometime.) Basically, when the time comes, I hope the Boss hires decent people who understand the value of team work.

To reassure me, he told me a tale of a prominent law firm where for years, the most senior partner's assistant was basically the Number Two in the firm. Of course, to anyone on the outside, she was probably "just a secretary." But within the firm, well, that invisible ladder messed up the hierarchy a bit. He told me about a time when said senior partner was out of town and said assistant asked another partner to perform some task that she knew from experience the Big Guy would like performed. Apparently the partner told her, probably not too politely, that he did not take orders from the help, no matter how close she was to The Big Guy. As the tale goes, the young partner received quite the reeming when El Muchacho got back in town. I'm guessing, hoping for his sake, that that was the last time he spoke down to the "help."

I have not put in the time or the cumulative effort yet to conjure the Boss's spirit when he is away. I am pretty sure that takes about twenty years and a ton of trust. But a client I personally know was in the office the other day, and when he jokingly told the Boss, "Oh, I don't listen to a word Mel says," The Boss's answer was simple and affirmative: "Good Lord, I sure do."


  1. My boss has a fit when I call him the "boss". He insists we're co-workers. But none of my other co-workers sign my paycheck :) Still, after 15 years of working together, it's probably fair to say that we take turns bossing each other

  2. Your article is right on. I am the paralegal to both the managing partner (Bigger Boss) and the assistant managing partner (Big Boss) of a statewide law firm. I've only been in this position for the past year (I did work for Big Boss for a year prior) but what a trip it's been! I don't walk around the firm like the Queen Bee but I have exercised my power a couple of times and it is exciting in a dangerous sort of way. I love when Bigger Boss tells me to get an associate to do something for him because ALL the associates want to do something for him. It's a good way to get chocolate!