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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.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't Mess With the Help

Title aside, I don't usually describe my job position with words like "the help." But it is helpful to look through the lens of a legal outsider from time to time, and when I do so, I have to face the fact that many lay people who don't know any better see me as just that. Still, their opinions usually take the outward form of helpful condescension or unknowing patronization, and while my ego may get slightly scuffed, I can usually laugh it off. Until today.

A call came through the office with a very minor administrative question, which I was able to answer with no problem. However, when the caller began asking for legal advice, I began the "I can't answer that question, but I'll have my attorney call you back to discuss it" routine. I cannot count how many times I had to repeat that phrase. Somehow from there, and with little to no involvement on my part, the caller realized he was angry for something that I still could not help him with. He proceeded to take his anger out on me before hanging up furiously.

I was dumbfounded. A simple conversation with a simple answer had suddenly erupted into a bitter display of what seemed like unfounded anger. I admit I got a little self-righteously ticked off and may have forgotten myself for a moment and slammed the phone down on the receiver. When I took a few deep breaths, I decided to be the better woman. I called back only to receive voicemail after several rings. I left a message regarding our "disconnection" and let the caller know that I would pass his message onto the attorney.

Then I tattled, or at least, that's what it felt like. I ran through the entire conversation with the Boss because when you're in a two-person office and something silly or outrageous happens, you have to tell the other person. It's almost a rule.

The Boss was not happy... at all. I have only seen this side of him once or twice before, the "oh no you didn't" side that comes out when someone's actions toward me offend him. It's nice, really, working with someone who has my back. It's also strange and unexpected. I expected him to say, "That happens, now buck up and move on." Because that's what I tell myself. But instead he dialed the caller and made it clear that he had crossed a line. I think the caller may have even apologized by the end of the conversation.

At the end of the whole mess I was left with a bitter sweet feeling. On the one hand, it's nice to work for a person who respects me enough to make sure others treat me with respect. On the other hand, I was unable to fight my own battle, to say anything at all to this person who spoke down to me. In my position as the assistant, not being at all sure about anything this guy was saying, I could neither apologize nor explain. I could only tell him I would pass the message along to the Boss.

The lesson I learned throughout this inconvenient afternoon was mainly this: Don't mess with the help. More specifically, don't mess with a lawyer's staff. If he appreciates them, you will not win any points by belittling them.

1 comment:

  1. Melissa, kudos to The Boss for insisting that his staff be treated with respect. And our job duties don't include being verbally abused by anyone. Sure, our challenge is to remain civil and professional throughout the exchange, but I know a lot of experienced paralegals - myself included - who politely tell verbally abusive callers that they are welcome to call back when they've calmed down and then gently set the phone receiver in the cradle.