“Christie, can you come down to my office? We are about to head over to the SEC to file our papers.”
This was the type of call I lived for as a first-year lawyer. The partner on the case had called me directly. He needed my help. When my phone rang, my veins surged with eagerness. He knows I exist! He just dialed my 5-digit extension! I must be real!
And I was ready for his call. I had checked our client’s stock price and memorized the recent press releases. I grabbed my notebook and my best pen—I would have done a few push-ups to really pump me up, but I didn’t have the time.
He was expecting me.
I was the most junior member of the team. For weeks, I had fought to contribute to the case in a meaningful way, even though I had no discernible skills other than passing the Bar exam.
I was also the only woman on the team so I tried not to cry in front of the 12 men.
The partner was an up-and-coming rainmaker who worked as hard as he expected us to. He preferred to work with associates from the places that were familiar to him: Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. I hoped that if I worked hard enough, he would forget that my degree was from a lower tier school.
As I walked to his corner office, I prepped myself for the meeting. Stand tall. You don’t have to be a man or a Yale graduate. Go get ‘em.
He was standing in the hall as I approached. I first noticed that he looked anxious, and second that he was holding a towel from the firm’s gym, which he extended to me. “Christie, can you please use this towel to wipe down the spines of all our briefs? There are little flecks of white paper all along the black spines. They are a mess.”
Without speaking, I took the towel and faced the 60 spines, flecked with dust as if they were plucked from a snow globe. When the partner left, and I let myself think the most un-team-player-like thought a young associate can have: “Why can’t the paralegal do this?”
The door was open, so I tried to work quickly hoping no one would see what I was doing. I froze my face in an expression that conveyed that I was in no way humiliated by towelling down briefs so we could file them fleck-free.
“Christie, what are you doing?” asked the paralegal who popped his head in just as I was finishing the last box. I held up the towel and shrugged my shoulders unwilling to say it out loud.
“Oh,” he responded as he ducked out and let me finish up in private. I wished I had the wit to pull off a joke with the punch line “throwing in the towel” or “being on the rag,” but I didn’t. My sense of humor had vanished when I swiped the first spine.
As I completed my glorified housekeeping task, I knew I had played a part in being chosen to use the tools, not of a lawyer, but of a grounds keeper. I was the one assigned to wipe the briefs because I stank of desperation, like the girl in high school who believes she’s compelled to give blow jobs just to get male attention.
But, I wasn’t 16 and thrust into a angsty after-school special. I wasn’t a victim. I had shown the partner—and everyone else—how I regarded myself, and they simply followed my lead.
I was missing something that the other associates and the paralegal had: an unshakable air of self-respect and dignity– an “I don’t do windows” demeanor. I didn’t have that in my core, and it showed. That’s why I was holding a towel while everyone else worked on computers.
I returned to my desk convinced I needed to change my own thinking. I didn’t need to change how the partner or anyone else thought of me. I had to start with myself.
And when I changed, that job no longer fit me.