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.
I am sitting in the war room, trying to guess what time of day it is and what the weather is like. Have I been here for an hour, or is it closer to lunchtime, and a brief respite from the monotony of document review? Is it a beautiful day outside, or is it dark and rainy? There are no windows in the room, so these details can be elusive. I will myself not to look at the clock, anticipating the pang of disappointment that comes with knowing just how many hours lie ahead. A moment later, I give in: 10:30. I sigh and turn back to my computer.
A week into the document review, my days have taken on a deadening sameness. I go to the office. I plow through documents. Ben Gay applies healing ointments to his joints; Mr. Potato Head samples from each of the major food groups. At some point, Elisa comes in to verbally abuse one or more of us. When she leaves, no one can get back to work until the nature of her bitchiness and the ridiculousness of her review protocol have been thoroughly deconstructed. These sessions seem almost necessary, a way to cleanse the collective palate of something bitter and distasteful.
They are also, sadly, the moments when the occupants of our forgotten room seem most alive, and when I catch flickering glimpses of the lawyers many of them are, or have been. In the process of discrediting Elisa and her somewhat arbitrary choices, the reviewers defend their judgment calls, piece together strategic arguments, and display a practical command of litigation that seems far greater than that of our young overseer. Still, these attempts at legal discourse invariably remind me of law school, when people immerse themselves in the painfully earnest discussion of substantive issues, with no sense for how ultimately unimportant their opinions are.
I try to remind myself that this is work, and — while far from ideal — it is better than the alternative … or at least more lucrative. But it’s hard for me not to think about document reviews I did as an associate. Although they could be tedious or frustrating (or tedious and frustrating), they often felt more like a blitzkrieg than a prolonged occupation. It was different when I was immersed in a case, faced with a deadline, and anxious to see what the documents would reveal; I remember the purposefulness of turning my attention to the task at hand, the measurable sense of progress, and the feeling of dorky satisfaction that came from seeing the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
This assignment has none of those features. Elisa has given us almost no background information; without a feel for the context of the case, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether I’ve missed some crucial nuance. I can recognize names, but I still have no sense of the people they belong to. And while I — like many lawyers — have indulged in the fantastic notion that my hours of scut work will pay off with a Perry Mason moment, I don’t even know enough about the case to picture the eventual cross or deposition during which the important documents will be brandished at a blanching witness.
More after the jump.
So I slog on. It is, I often think, like watching someone else’s children do something that is supposed to be cute. Even if you can understand it on some level, it is difficult — in the absence of a fundamental connection — to really fathom why the smudgy picture that little Billy drew with Cray-Pas is remotely interesting, or why you should believe that it’s actually a family portrait, a depiction of the unicorn he rode to school, or whatever else he’s trying to sell you. On the other hand, reading through endless, indistinguishable versions of the same marketing plan and a thousand e-mail forwards entitled “This is SOOOO funny! Must read!!!” sometimes makes me long for a hand-drawn picture of a unicorn. At least it would be different.
Instead, the only thing that distinguishes one day from another is the mind-blowing daily picnic that Mr. Potato Head produces from his carpet bag. He reminds me of the Very Hungry Caterpillar in a book I had when I was little, who, on successive days, devoured an astounding variety of foodstuffs. Starting modestly with a single apple on day one, the Hungry Caterpillar subsequently worked his way through two pears, three plums, four strawberries, and five oranges, until, on day six, he ate his way through some ice cream, a piece of chocolate cake, a pickle, a block of Swiss cheese, a salami, a lollipop, a cherry pie, a sausage, a cupcake, and a whole watermelon. For Mr. Potato Head, every day is day six.
At 10:45, I stroll to the bathroom. I feel like washing off the grime of the war room and the stink of Mr. Potato Head’s mid-morning snack (a turkey drumstick), but after a few Lady MacBeth-ish minutes of scrubbing I conclude that it is futile. I pause for a moment before the mirror, suddenly aware of my increasingly slovenly attire. I wore a suit for the first few days, but since we are safely hidden from view in the war room, my sartorial motivation seems to be vanishing rapidly. At this rate, I estimate, I will be wearing a housecoat and slippers to work soon.
I am dabbing at coffee stain on my shirt when another reviewer walks in. “Hi, Angela!” I say brightly. She doesn’t respond, and I notice that she is wearing headphones. When she stops at the sink for a moment and takes them off, I greet her again, but she looks at me strangely. “Do I know you?” she says defensively. I am flummoxed for a moment, amazed that it is possible to sit in a tiny room with someone for a full week without registering their presence.
“I’m working on the document review,” I tell her. “Maybe you didn’t recognize me outside of my natural habitat.” I smile, but she responds by putting her headphones back on and turning the music up so loudly that I recognize the words of that Beastie Boys classic, “Paul Revere,” from where I stand. Then she disappears into the stall and un-self-consciously takes a loud shit. I flee, feeling defiled.
On my way back to the war room, I run into Josh, the young guy with visible tattoos. He asks me if I want to go downstairs for a cigarette. “Sure,” I say. I have been smoking again, mostly because it provides me with an excuse to go outside. While we smoke, I tell him about my run-in with Angela in the bathroom. “She’s whacked,” he says, unsurprised. Angela is a “lifer”; she works on document reviews all the time, and probably never had – or will have – a regular job. “She has a lot of experience,” Josh explains, “so she gets gigs pretty regularly. But I don’t know if the people who hire her for these things ever actually meet her.”
Mr. Potato Head, Josh tells me, has a similar story. He went to law school at night when he arrived in this country, and has never worked as anything but a coder. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he laughs wryly. Josh went to a top tier school, but only at his father’s insistence. He never wanted to be a lawyer, and he takes document review jobs because they pay better than waiting tables and leave his nights free for playing gigs with his band. “I feel sorry for you guys who are, like, actual lawyers,” he says, with the tactless sympathy of someone who is 25. “I mean, I don’t give a shit about this stuff, but I would be totally bummed if it was, like, my career.” The thought of a “career” in document review makes my stomach turn queasily. I must also look uneasy; Josh punches my arm cheerfully a moment later. “Aw, don’t worry, Roxie,” he says. “You’ll be rockin’ a real job soon enough. I would totally hire you.”
When we get upstairs, I expect to find the usual collection of semi-comatose reviewers, fixed blankly on their computer screens. Instead, we walk into what appears to be an episode of the Tyra Banks show. Yvonne, one of the coders, is stalking around while the others stand or sit, staring at her somewhat fearfully. Only Mr. Potato Head, who is placidly biting into a hardboiled egg, seems unmoved. “This ain’t right!” she says emphatically, sucking her teeth. “This ain’t right! That bitch knows it ain’t right, and I will not hesitate to call my attorney!”
I don’t know what has Yvonne so incensed, but I am not particularly surprised by her state of pique; I suspect that she works at temp jobs because she could never bill a full eight hours a day, given how much time her incessant complaining occupies. I am tempted to ask her what her latest problem is, but Susan shoots me a warning look, mouthing the words, “don’t ask,” as she covers her eyes, then her ears, and finally her mouth. While the idea of settling down to peruse documents while Hurricane Yvonne rages in the background strikes me as odd, every else seems to be turning back to their work. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about the etiquette of temp work. I sit down at my station and catch the treasure troll’s eye, remembering how shabby I looked in the bathroom mirror. Fuck you, I tell him silently. At least I’m wearing a shirt.
Moments later, Elisa barges in, sneering. “What’s the problem, Yvonne?” she asks impatiently.
“Don’t ask me what the problem is, Elisa,” Yvonne shouts back, spitting out her name as though it is a swear word, or an alias. “I told you my damn chair was broke, and it’s cutting off my circulation. I have diabeetus, and this shit ain’t right. Are you gonna be asking me what the problem is when I lose my foot?” Yvonne holds out her foot, which is bubbling over the side of her shoe. No one speaks for a moment, and I have the urge to point out that Yvonne’s foot is too fat for her shoe. Problem solved!
“Look, Yvonne,” Elisa hisses. “I told you I would call Facilities, and they’ll come and LOOK AT YOUR CHAIR.” She enunciates the last few words as though she is talking to an ornery child. The scene is almost unbearable, but I am transfixed nonetheless.
“And where is Facilities, Elisa?” Yvonne squawks back. “No one came to look at my chair. If I get back from lunch and I don’t have a new chair, I am calling my attorney.” She picks up her pocketbook and flounces out dramatically, even though it is only 11:15. Elisa spins around, looking ready to pounce. I duck reflexively, and a few of the others cower visibly. “I’ll be down later to go over a few issues!” she yells at no one in particular. Then she storms out, slamming the door behind her.
As soon as she is gone, we abandon document review in order to pick apart the confrontation, as though reviewing a schoolyard fight. I suggest that Yvonne may be giving Elisa a flushy in the girls’ bathroom as we speak, after which we spend the next forty five minutes constructing elaborate Elisa vs. Yvonne cage-match scenarios. We agree that the smart money is on Yvonne, but wonder if Elisa could hold her own if equipped with various easily-obtained office supplies. A stapler? Maybe. A staple remover? Quite possibly. Ben Gay mentions a letter opener and a packet of rubber bands, and Josh laughs so hard that a fountain of soda – caught mid-swallow — sprays from his mouth. For a moment, it feels like we are a group of friends enjoying a good laugh, notwithstanding the distinct Lord of the Flies overtones. Nothing brings people together, I think, like collective animosity.
When I leave that night, I am exhausted. I wonder how someone can accomplish so little and still feel so tired. I fall asleep early, but am awakened in the middle of the night by an amorphously bad dream in which it is winter — months from now — and I am still in the war room, pulling my own baked potato out of a plastic bag. The thought of being comfortable there, of becoming an old-timer like Ben Gay or losing the ability to recall my sense of dignity, fills me with unease.
After half an hour, I get up and turn on the television. Almost everything on is a paid program, advertising something life-altering – a better butt, a cleaner colon, a way to grow fabulously wealthy by speculating on real estate with no money down. I flip channels and land on what appears to be a lurid crime show. The camera pans over a grainy picture of a man wearing the kind of huge, unfashionable glasses that seem synonymous with social exclusion. “What if you found out that someone you worked with was a serial killer?” the solemn voiceover intones. A faux-shocked co-worker appears onscreen. “He was real nice,” the man says, presumably referring to the serial killer. “He mighta been a little quiet, but he seemed like a good man, a churchgoer.” Sinister music plays. “No one suspected that there was a brutal killer in their midst …” the voiceover continues ominously. An image of Mr. Potato Head flashes through my mind, unbidden. I shudder and change the channel.
I settle on the National Geographic channel, where an episode of The Dog Whisperer is just starting. I watch for awhile, waiting to be inspired by a remarkable show of dog-to-human bonding, but eventually I begin to doze off. I am half asleep when I hear it: the hissing sound. It is the sound that Elisa makes whenever she comes to the war room. Suddenly awake, I turn up the volume — and there it is again. Cesar (the Dog Whisperer himself) is talking about being a pack leader. As the members of the pack, many of whom are pit bulls, mill around him, he hisses sharply at them. The sound brings them up short, displaying his “calm, assertive energy,” and “psychological dominance” over the other dogs. He reiterates the importance of dominance, being the pack leader, and instilling respect in your doggie underlings. “No fucking way,” I say aloud to the cats. “Elisa is trying to be the pack leader.” That makes us the pack.
I suddenly wish there was someone there – someone human – to talk to. “I work for someone who learned interpersonal skills from the fucking Dog Whisperer,” I announce to the empty room. In this scenario, I think unhappily, I am the dog. I turn off the TV and lie down in bed, wondering how I went from working as a lawyer to being a putative pack animal. I spend a few minutes feeling disgusted by Elisa and pondering whether my lowly status makes it okay to bite her. Then my anger fades, and I realize that, more than anything, I am sad. My good intentions, the notion that I could help people, the belief that I could earn a place in my profession of which I could be proud … these things suddenly seem fanciful, even silly. I feel my eyes well with tears. Because I am alone and it is the middle of the night, I don’t bother to fight them.
The next morning I go to the office, irritable, tired, and hoping that Elisa will not make an appearance. When I get up to the war room and she is standing in the middle of the pack, I am instantly annoyed. I glance quickly at Susan, who looks stricken, and then at Ben Gay, who is tossing ointments into his ratty plastic bag. “Roxana,” Elisa says brusquely, “don’t bother settling in. It looks like the case is going to settle, so we’re sending you all home for now. If something changes, your agency will let you know.”
I look around the room at my colleagues’ faces. The end of this project means the end of my paycheck. It means that I won’t have money that I counted on, and budgeted for. Even so, I feel a surge of relief.
“Well, Elisa,” I say, reaching out to shake her hand, “good luck to you.” She looks at me uncertainly, as if unsure what to do with this unscripted moment. I grab the hand she has extended tentatively, shaking it firmly. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “I don’t bite.”
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