Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
This column is a continuation of last week’s column, which you can read here.
After the departure of Elisa — who, I now have it on information and belief, is a bitch — I have the distinct sense that I have been sent to my room. “Go to your room!” I imagine her screaming at a petulant child, “and don’t come out until you’ve reviewed 68,000 documents!”
I want to ask one of my new colleagues for some guidance — an insider’s view of what to expect, and how things work in this strange ecosystem — but I am reasonably certain that my inquiry will be futile, since none of them can hear me: they are all wearing headphones. Even the carpal tunnel guy has retreated to the auditory solace of his own world, and is bobbing his head gently while he applies something pungent to his visibly swollen joints. I watch him pull a tattered plastic shopping bag out from under his desk and rifle through a collection of tubes, bottles, and jars, one of which he finally selects and opens, filling the room with the smell of menthol. I wonder if he is going to apply it directly to his forehead.
I start to flip through the review protocol, which seems inordinately complicated. The document tags appear to have been created by several different people who were not in the same room at the same time. Like anything produced by multiple lawyers (with multiple egos), it looks like the product of a stubborn refusal to compromise. Perhaps it will make more sense once I start reviewing actual documents, I think, opening the database. I am hoping that the fine points of the “review tool” will come back to me quickly.
Instead, looking at the screen in front of me, I am flooded with the memory of a case I worked on a few months before I was laid off. For a moment I am back at my desk in my old office, talking to the client on the phone about what we need to identify in the documents. I want to laugh at the absurdity of revisiting the nuances of Kroll Ontrack the way some people remember the details of an old relationship. In this scenario, Kroll would be the ex-boyfriend, which, I suppose, is not so far-fetched given how much time I spent with it.
Kroll would be a bad ex, I muse. Remember that restaurant we didn’t go to? The time we didn’t go for a walk together? Remember when I marked that document “privileged,” and then someone else marked it “non-responsive”? Remember how hard we didn’t laugh? I’m sorry we had to break up, Kroll, but you never wanted to do anything but talk shop and stay in on weekends. Yes, I remember when you said I’d be back, and I guess you were right. But I want you to know that I saw other documents — lots of other documents — while we were apart.
More after the jump.
I snap out of my reverie and start examining the documents, proceeding slowly and looking back at the review protocol as I do. It is tedious work, and I wonder whether I will be able to get through a respectable number before the end of the day. I plod through e-mails, trying to familiarize myself with names, and pore over PowerPoint presentations and marketing plans, afraid to miss something important. When, thirty minutes later, one of the reviewers takes off her headphones and stands up, I feel as though I have been at the task for hours.
The woman, a slightly rumpled blonde with a round face and blue eyes who appears to be in her forties, looks over at me and breaks protocol by actually making eye contact. “Do you want me to show you where the ladies’ room is?” she asks. “Sure!” I answer, standing up so suddenly that my chair falls over backwards. The potato eater looks over at me briefly, his eyes dead, and then turns back to his computer. He has taken out a stack of American cheese slices, which he unwraps slowly and folds into his mouth, as though preparing an omelet on his tongue. I glance back at him as I leave, half expecting to see him pouring in a beaten egg and some chopped mushrooms.
I follow the blonde woman, Susan, out of the room, and am immediately overtaken by the urge to run. I want to suggest that we bolt, and have to stop myself from saying, “We’ll be over the state line before they even notice we’re gone!” Instead, I follow her through a maze of hallways, which look nothing like the cushy area I entered this morning. The carpet is worn and dirty, the walls are scuffed, and there isn’t a massive floral arrangement in sight, or even a place to put one. When we arrive at our destination, Susan shows me the combination for the push-button lock, and the door swings open on a dirty restroom with an aesthetic inspired, it seems, by a recent spread in Filling Station Digest. Pink soap drips from a dispenser, forming a viscous puddle on the floor, and a torn sign taped by the mirror requests that visitors “Do not put sanitary supply’s in the toilet’s! Please put them in the receptacal’s provided!”
While we are standing at the sink washing our hands with pink slop, Susan looks over at me and asks me whether this my “first time.” Yes, I tell her; it is. “It’s not so bad,” she says, and then adds, “you just have to keep your head down and try to stay out of Elisa’s way.” Elisa, she tells me, took over the supervision of the document review from another attorney, and — in case I hadn’t noticed — is not well-liked by “the coders.” For one thing, she explains, Elisa decided to add her own categories to the review protocol, despite the fact that the previous attorney had already developed a set. Although this made the review exponentially more complicated than it had been (or needed to be), Elisa seems to believe that the problem is the coders, whom she views as mostly incompetent. “My advice,” Susan says, “is to avoid calling her out about anything related to the protocol.” She tells me that my predecessor made the mistake of suggesting to Elisa that her categories were somewhat unworkable, after which he was expeditiously fired. Or disappeared.
On our stroll back to the war room, Susan tells me that she was once a senior associate at a Big Law Firm. But, while she was out on maternity leave after the birth of her third child, she was suddenly “downsized,” and couldn’t find another permanent position. Since she lost her job, she has been doing temp and contract work, and tries to take on assignments with the potential for overtime, since her husband works on commission and is making a fraction of what he used to. Susan loved her old firm, and thought that she would spend the rest of her career there. Now, she wonders whether she will ever be a “real lawyer” again. “I’m too old to be an associate,” she says, betraying a tinge of sadness, “but I don’t have the business to be of counsel, much less a partner.”
When I get back to my station, I sense a shift in the tone of the room. Susan has broken the ice, and now that I have been accepted by a member of the fold the others seem willing to follow. Ben Gay, the carpal tunnel guy, smiles at me when I sit down, and even Mr. Potato Head nods in my direction before reaching into a bag of croutons, which he has pulled out of his seemingly bottomless duffel. He’s like Mary Poppins! I think, wondering whether he will surprise us later with a floor lamp, a coat rack, a tape measure, or a rubber plant. So far, he seems only to have foodstuffs in his satchel. He also seems to have a tapeworm; although I have now observed him eating the equivalent of several meals, he is rail-thin. Maybe document-reviewing burns a lot of calories, I think hopefully.
“So,” I say, to no one in particular, “how many documents should I expect to get through in a day?” This seems like an important piece of information to me. I am reminded of a story that I heard from an incarcerated pro bono client, Barry. When he first went to jail, Barry told me, he was assigned to work in the shop where clothing was made. Convinced that sewing was not an appropriately macho assignment, and determined to devote his days to post-conviction relief, Barry — an enterprising sort — decided to outsew his compatriots. He believed that his ambition would be rewarded with the opportunity to transfer to the assignment he wanted, working in the law library.
Barry’s plan backfired. It turned out that he had inadvertently violated the social compact that governed the shop, which had a strict unwritten quota intended to show just enough initiative to allow the inmates to keep their cushy tailoring jobs, while still working slowly enough to stretch out the time they spent outside their cells. Barry learned of his faux pas when he was tipped off by another inmate, who told him that his disgruntled coworkers were planning to shank him in the stairwell. Although I do not think that Susan would shank me, there are a few others I am less certain about. The moral of Barry’s story suddenly seems oddly transferable to my current situation: I sense that we’re all in this thing together, and I do not want to upset the social order in this tiny room.
Ben Gay, who seems to be the group’s unofficial father figure, tells me that they shoot for around 200 documents a day. “I’ve been on projects where we did way more than that,” he says, rubbing Tiger Balm on his elbow. (Bursitis, he tells me later.) “But Elisa made this review protocol so complicated that we can get away with it.” A young man with spiky hair and visible tattoos pulls out his headphones to chime in. “Yeah, dude,” he drawls. “You don’t want to do much more than that, especially if you don’t think you’ll have a gig lined up after this. And that bitch can’t really say anything to you, since there were some issues with quality control early on. If she gives you shit, just say you’re trying to be really thorough.”
I plod through documents for a few hours, and have fallen into a semi-comatose state when, around 11:30, the door flies open. It is Dick Cheney, loosely disguised as Elisa. She doesn’t say hello, but comes to stand behind me, hovering over my shoulder and looking at my screen. Her looming closeness fills me with discomfort. “Flip back to the first page of the document,” she says tonelessly. I comply, half expecting her to smack the back of my head. Or, I think, maybe she’ll skip that and go right to extraordinary rendition. A tense moment passes while she leans on the back of my chair, staring into the screen. Her weight has pushed my chair so close to the edge of the table that I am effectively trapped. I suppose rendition is easier if they debilitate you first, I conclude glumly.
After a moment, I wonder whether she will do this until I lose consciousness. I am being crushed in the vise created by my chair and the edge of my desk. “Elisa,” I choke, “I can’t breathe. Why don’t I stand up, so you can sit here?” She lets out the sharp hissing sound that I heard her make earlier, and I flinch. I notice that everyone else does, too, and make a mental note to ask them about it.
“It’s fine,” she says suddenly, releasing me from chair-prison. “I don’t need to sit down. I just thought you were doing something wrong.” I take a deep, grateful breath. She moves over to another reviewer who, I notice, has leaped from her chair in time to avoid being trapped in a stress-position. Elisa sits down and clicks through a few documents, hissing a few more times. “This is wrong,” she says, clicking faster. “This is all wrong.” Her voice escalates. “You should have tagged 17 and 28. Didn’t you read the protocol?” She looks up expectantly, and the woman crosses her arms and looks away. She must be 15 years older than Elisa, but she is being addressed like a child.
I can’t watch this. I get up and head for the door, hoping that I can find the bathroom again. “Roxana!” Elisa calls sharply. “You need to go to the paralegal coordinator and get your ID badge at lunch.” I stop with my hand on the doorknob. Susan comes to my rescue. “I’ll show her where it is, Elisa,” she says. I mouth a quick “thank you” and flee.
After “lunch,” which I spend taking care of administrative matters, the day creeps by. By three, I feel as though the walls are closing in. The air in the room is stale and acrid, laden with the smell of healing ointments and Mr. Potato Head’s latest snack. I stare at the troll doll, who looks back at me with a wide-eyed grin. Maybe, I tell him silently, if you put on a shirt and combed your hair, you’d have a better job.
Without looking, I fumble in the pocket of my jacket for a piece of gum, and then glance down at what I have pulled out. It is a stack of my old business cards, which I realize, are left over from the last time I wore this suit, months ago. I turn them over slowly in my hands, tracing the embossed letters. A deep sense of loss washes over me, and I find myself blinking back hot tears. I feel tiny and lost, one of a million invisible, drifting souls sitting in a dusty, forgotten room, trying to hold onto an empty cup of dreams. I wipe my eyes on my sleeve and put the cards back in my pocket. “Are you okay?” Susan whispers across the room. “Allergies,” I answer. She nods, unconvinced.
When the day finally ends, I walk slowly to the subway, grateful for fresh air even though it is unseasonably cold. The train takes a long time to come, and when it does I sink into an open seat, wondering how I can possibly be so tired after a day of sitting. I close my eyes and think about a hot shower, convinced that I smell of potatoes and Icy Hot.
Just before the doors close at the station, two musicians hop into the car and announce that they are going to play a song. Great, I think: the natural law of the subway dictates that you will be treated to a burst of loud music — usually of the percussive variety — if, and only if, you already have a pounding headache. I brace myself for the racket, and am pleasantly surprised when the two buskers start playing a banjo and a guitar. One of them begins to sing. “I hear the train a’comin’, it’s rolling round the bend, and I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when …” I feel myself start to smile as he continues, “I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on.”
When the song is over, the musicians walk through the car, collecting money in a hat. I pull a few dollars out of my wallet and put it in the pile. “Hey, thanks!” the singer says brightly. “My pleasure,” I tell him. “I know how you feel.”
Ed. note: Notes from the Breadline is on hiatus next week. The next installment will appear in the first week of June.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at email@example.com), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline