The Basics Done Well

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It all started with a ruler and a pen.  My legal career, that is.  C’mon, you know you want to read more.

My first job in the legal field came late in the spring of my second year of law school.  It was a time when all of us were looking to be hired as “law clerks”.  A law clerk, as I later learned, was basically working as a paid intern.  A gofer (go fer this, go fer that) in a suit.  Yes, this was in the first half of the 80’s when we all had to wear suits, even those of us who lacked (as yet) law degrees.

I went to work at a firm that did mostly “insurance defense”.  This was a booming field then, one where we were the lawyers hired by insurance companies to represent the drivers and homeowners who got sued for allegedly causing accidents. Had I gone to work for a firm that represented the people hurt in those accidents, I would have left the “allegedly” out of that sentence.  It’s all about perspective.

The senior partner there was a man in his late sixties who was beginning to wind down from a long and successful career in the field.  From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, he was one of the guys you wanted on your team if you were an insurance claims manager who hoped to keep the hotshot personal injury lawyers at bay.

Wendell was a very conservative man, and I don’t mean just politically.  He was the kind of guy who had no use for many modern lifestyle innovations.  He was a man of deep Christian faith and a man from a simple, rural background, strained through the sieve of the Second World War where he served his country by jumping out of airplanes behind enemy lines.  Wendell was not afraid of anyone or anything, and was as fine a man as an aspiring lawyer could choose for a mentor.

My very first day in the office began with an assignment from Wendell.  “I have a trial coming up.  It involves an insurance policy and I would like to give each juror a copy of the policy, and I would like you to underline some parts of it.”

“I’m going to law school to underline?” was my first thought.  An unspoken first thought, of course.  Wendell continued: “I want you to use this pen, it has a good tip on it.  And here is a ruler.  Let me show you how I want this.”  I watched Wendell meticulously place the wooden ruler below a line of text, and then slowly and carefully make a perfectly even and straight line across the page.  There were two or three sentences that needed this treatment, and after Wendell got through he told me that he needed six more done just like it.  “Do you think you can do that?”

I knew what he meant.  He surely knew that I could make underlines.  He wanted to be sure that my underlines would look exactly like his underlines – straight and even and perfect, with no ink globs or waviness that might happen if I were not paying 100% attention to this simple task.

I set to work and meticulously underlined the text on six different insurance policies.  I was pretty sure that it was impossible to tell mine from his, as I mimicked as closely as I could how far out from the beginning and end of each line of text his underlines had gone, and the thickness of each line.  It was a simple job, but not an easy job.  Wendell was  satisfied.

There was another time when he was not satisfied, and he came in to see me.  “I wanted to show you something about the way you staple” he said.  “What?  How can there possibly be something wrong with how two papers were stapled together?” I asked myself.

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“See how you did this?” Wendell asked.  “Your staple goes straight across the top of the paper.  The problem is that when you turn to the second page, the top sheet pulls at the sharp end of the staple and it wants to tear.  If your staples go like this, at a 45 degree angle to the corner of the page, the paper won’t tear when you turn the page,  See how the paper bends right along the side of the staple?”

This time I was not quite so receptive to the instruction.  What I wanted to say in reply was “Look here you rigid old fossil, I have been handling staplers most of my life and know how they work.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution to putting a staple into two sheets of paper.  If you want to be so anal about it, I will do it the way you want but don’t go all superior on me about how this is the ‘right way'”.

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What I actually said was “OK.”  It took a little bit, but I kept simmering over what he said and how he said it.  He was not being intentionally condescending, he just knew what he wanted.  The problem was that he was right.  I hated that the most of all.  I stapled a few things a few different ways, even.  And I had to admit that he had a point – his way really was better.  Stapling papers was a simple thing, but not necessarily an easy thing and Wendell insisted that it be done in the best way possible.

The passing decades have found me well along in my career.  And there have been many times when the temptation has been great to take the shortcuts.  And in times of hectic workloads or deadlines that must be met, or especially when it involves an internal process that doesn’t affect a client’s case, I have taken them.  But every time I have done so, I have thought to myself that “Wendell would have never done it like this.”  And as often as not the shortcut taken would eventually cause problems somewhere else, so that the time and effort initially saved is spent anyway.  Leading me to sigh “Wendell would never have had to go back and deal with this.”

I will never get to practice law with the luxury of the unhurried pace that was the norm in  Wendell’s day.  Times have changed and we are pressed to accomplish so much more (and in less time) than was the case “in the old days.”  But as I reflect, I can see that my best moments as a lawyer can be traced back to heeding the lessons learned from well-drawn straight lines and forty-five degree staples.  The simple things are not always easy.  Done well, they almost always require care and thought and effort.

 

Photo sources:

Opening photo – a royalty-free photo from pxfuel.com

All other photos by the author

24 thoughts on “The Basics Done Well

    • Very true. It is encouraging that some of the younger generation seem to be taking the “done well” idea and applying it to crafts like brewing and cooking. There is a satisfaction that comes from doing a job well that has to be missing from the lives of a whole lot of people in today’s world.

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  1. How marvelous that you had such an effective mentor. I don’t know that I ever had a mentor like that, back in the days when I started my career.

    I guess the best mentors I had were the machinists and millwrights who would chew my ass whenever I made an error. Those guys were in the same building as me, and that never happens anymore either. With best cost country sourcing I manage projects where the basic engineering is in Australia, detail drawings done in Sri Lanka, fabrication in China and Mexico, and destination USA. You don’t just walk over to the office to chew the designer’s ass, they’re not even on the same continent!

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    • Your kind of multinational arrangement is foreign to me (sorry) but you make a great point. We can still do this with our kids. I will confess to more than one comment about lines that were not straight enough following a kid’s cutting of the grass.

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  2. Well written! 🙂

    This story makes me wonder whether you’ve had the opportunity to serve as mentor to aspiring lawyers yourself. I get the feeling you’d make a good one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was an enjoyable read. I will have to pay more attention to my stapling.
    As a fellow anal, I would have liked Wendall – in my career attention to detail ruled as the smallest mis-read of a decimal point or similar looking name or such could be lethal. I never had a work mentor, but I recall we had it drilled into us in our classes, we were the last line of defense. Perfectionism ruled. In my last few years working we had a few co-op students and that attitude seemed to be long-gone. It wasn’t just the small details, it was everything, it was like no one had ever showed them how to think or look at the whole picture overall. My company eventually got bought out by a big corporation and now speed and profit is the king, as in so many other jobs.

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  4. PS. I forgot to say I spend the summer of my first job dusting the pharmacy shelves. I was 18 and bored to tears, but my boss felt this would be a good way for me to get familiar with the different drug names and strengths and manufacturers, and he was right. I would check out the labels and see what they were used for. When the typist went on vacation I graduated to typing, and once he saw how fast I could type, I typed drug labels the rest of the summer! This was obviously in the days before computerization, but it was useful when I went back to school in the fall, as I could relate the course material to the drug names, doses and directions. Now the kids get a four week rotation and get a license….they have so little practical experience it’s scary.

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  5. Our top legal man at work’s name was Rex. Any time he pumped out a legal document he used those little blue staple protectors at the top of the page. I once asked him about them, and he explained how they not only protected the paper from being torn when pages were turned, but they also ensured that the document could not be unstapled and pages removed or inserted. A whole fascinating technology these staples. Never mind about those initials at the bottom right of each page now..

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  6. This is interesting to read JP. On Tuesday, February 11th, I will mark 40 years as a legal secretary. Before that job, I had a B.A., majoring in Print Journalism, and worked at Young & Rubicam advertising agency, hoping to climb the ladder from secretary to junior copywriter, but we lost our major account (Chrysler) and our agency lost half the Creative Department who scattered to the wind, including my mentor, so I looked for another job. I began in insurance defense and loved it, but after a few years my boss tired of litigation and became our insurance client’s corporate counsel instead. This was not my cup of tea and I stayed at the Firm, but doing litigation which I like. I now work for a traditional labor attorney (management side) and have done so for twenty years – we left the firm after a merger and they wanted to raise the rates of my boss, who was an of-counsel attorney; he feared he would lose clients, so we went out on our own. My job is unique in that I’ve worked at home the last decade and not been on site since April 2009.

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    • You sound like my idea of a perfect legal secretary!!! A journalism background and a college degree from back when they really said something about a person.

      Yes, there’s a lot of instability in smaller law firms, made worse by big multi-state firms plopping into many cities. Congratulations on a long and successful career!

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      • Thank you JP and the administrative partner who interviewed me, told me on my first day that since I had no legal secretarial experience, I was allowed to ask his secretary a question, but I must write down the answer because I should not be bothering her more than necessary. He said “I hope we don’t train you and you leave.” I looked in our Michigan Bar Journal online to write him an e-mail that I was celebrating four decades in the business and was a little bummed that his e-mail address is not active anymore – he passed the bar in 1966. I’m toying with the idea of sending a card to his home address. I used to go down the hall every year and remind him I was still here, because he hesitated to hire anyone who associated with “those advertising types” as Y&R was in the same building, just a few floors away, and “I see those Creative Department fellows all the time in the elevator.” On my 10th anniversary with the firm, I left a fake subpoena on his desk inviting him to appear at my desk to eat crow.

        It was a sad day when the merger happened and my boss, (not the current one), who was an equity partner there for years, had his rates raised and the client balked and went to another firm – it was his main client, so my boss was considered unprofitable and given his walking papers. I chose my current boss as he was busy and considered a “cash cow” and I knew I’d always have work to do as people always have labor problems. The acquiring firm in Virginia shuttered the Detroit office two years after we left. My boss will be 73 next month and does not plan to retire until 2022 at age 75. His father practiced probate law until age 82, when he died suddenly and had no intentions of retiring!

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      • I love the fake subpoena! You remind me of another bit of wisdom from Wendell. He used to say that you can’t hire a good legal secretary because they all have jobs, so you have to make one from scratch. You prove his rule!

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      • I like Wendell. When you mentioned the underling of the exhibit I chuckled. My boss will highlight and underline new contract language – he does not want to do it electronically and send it in a PDF and will do them by hand. When I worked on site, I would help him highlight/underline new K language. Let me tell you that the legal secretaries today have no idea what it was like to be typing and editing with white out to get a mediation summary filed with the Tribunal less than five minutes after the white out dried. I used a non-correcting IBM Selectric typewriter for years and we did our bills on “good letterhead” with cheap paper for the file, using carbon paper!! We xeroxed those deposition transcripts made of onionskin-type paper and watched them jam and catch in the xerox machine and copied microfiche medical records, page by page. Plus we bound our appellate briefs in a binding system on site, wiggling the spiral plastic rings one by one, crossing our fingers we would make last call for Fed Ex! When Robb and I left the firm, the litigation secretaries would use a copy service to make one copy if it had tabs in it, rather than pull tabs and xerox a brief that had tabs. I can remember standing assembling tabs for a brief that went to the second series in an alphabet … the legal secretaries today have it made! He loved the Subpoena to Eat Crow and I heard him laughing in his office when his secretary, who was in on it, called and said “he’s here!”

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      • Yes, I agree with that – when we got our IBM Wheelwriters, which stored a signature block for letters and pleadings (and stopped so you could insert the parties’ name after “attorneys for ____”), we truly thought we died and went to Heaven!

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