Towel Girl

“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.”

Exact replica of the spines I had to towel down, because FLECKS.

Exact replica of the spines I had to towel down, because the perforated pages created dust.  A big legal NO NO.

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.

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79 thoughts on “Towel Girl

  1. For some reason, WordPress logged me in under my sabbatical blog, Lawyer Interrupted, instead of just under my name; it actually makes perfect sense for your post! Much love, Rena

  2. Moments like these are both frustrating and useful. For someone with more chutzpah than I had at that age, it can turn into a springboard for a talk about responsibilities and frustrations – if you are willing to risk being let go. 🙂

    If it weren’t for your being the only female, I’d say no big deal. From what I’ve heard from friends in NYC firms, juniors of all genders get the crap jobs for a while. Then they give them out later – which kind of sucks too.

      • I’d love to believe this too, but I can’t. I suspect a male eager newbie would have been asked to do something banal but relevant in addition to wiping the binders. The binders would have been presented as an afterthought.
        Consider: Law firms are full to bursting with self haters of both sexes.

  3. I can’t describe it. I’ve worked in law firms over 12 years (although not currently). When I took the LSAT, I was still a legal secretary (one who refused to get coffee because come on, you’re a grown ass man. The kitchen is BESIDE your office. Get it yourself). Luckily, I realized the day the score came in the mail that law school wasn’t for me. That score would have gotten me places and it scared the hell out of me, the way the associates were treated in the firms I’d worked at. There will always be someone willing to do scut work and not complain, not declare how much more valuable he/she is. I’m glad you figured it out for yourself. (If only I could now figure out what to do with my life career-wise).

    • So far I am working on process of elimination instead of seeking the dream. Funny, my score was no great shakes, but I pressed on. Law firms are so weird. I had more respect when I was a paralegal in some cases!

  4. I am writing this comment sitting at my desk in my law firm office, and I am 100% sure that I don’t have that “I don’t do windows” demeanor either. I have had experiences so similar to yours, and honestly, it sometimes makes it exceedingly hard to get up and get myself here in the morning. In many ways, I am certain that this job doesn’t fit me, but I am not quite sure what the next step will be.

    • You know, there were a few people I was thinking about when I wrote this, and you were one of them. I was picturing you enjoying your legal experience and feeling annoyed that I was being all complainy. Funny how it seems I got that wrong!

    • I could have sworn I had a “I don’t do windows” attitude too, but that didn’t stop the new CFO from asking his youngest female Finance manager (me) to go get coffee for everyone. This is going to sound snotty, but that Chartered Accountant designation on my wall means I don’t do coffee. Period. My boss says it doesn’t mean anything and he’s just “like that” but I’ve been keeping my resume up to date ever since. I was flat out humiliated – even my staff were confused. Once I’m back from mat leave, we’ll see how long I stay there. At this point I’m thinking they’ll need to pay me to leave, but a few more incidents like that and I’ll save them the money.

      • Oh hell yes the Chartered Accountant should DEFINITELY mean that. Ef him. I would never EVER ask you to fetch me coffee. Being “like that” is no excuse.

  5. It kills me that people who have no clue achieve great heights just because they think highly of themselves, while the truly brilliant ones have no clue that they’re brilliant and wipe dust off of spines.

  6. Yikes, I am starting to feel really bad for myself after reading this and the comments. I must have zero self-respect. I volunteer for the most menial of tasks in every job and do it with the pride of Polyanna. At least at my law firm I was the highest paid box mover of all time. I have issues.

    • But if it never felt humiliating, then it’s a win-win. Moving boxes is only bad if you think that is what you deserve instead of viewing it as a way to pitch in.

      On Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 10:10 AM, Outlaw Mama

  7. I worked in the legal department of a movie studio in LA (Imagine Films) for a few years. The entire department, including the lawyers, was treated in this way. Only “creative” got any respect, if you want to call it that. The condescension and the much heralded sexism in that industry was stunning. The only interesting part was to see the movie stars in person and be amazed at how short they all are.

    • That’s so funny to think of the rung above the partners at a law firm! Ha! I would love to see some short celebrities right now…Javier Bardem comes to mind.

      On Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 10:18 AM, Outlaw Mama

  8. This post sent me scurrying back to online job listings. I don’t want to work in a place where my supervisor’s comment about a smudged name tag makes me self-stabby any more. Sigh…

  9. Ugh, Christie. This one really socks me in the gut. It feels like a scene straight out of Mad Men and yet I realize that yours is a scenario many working women face every day. Good for you for using that fed-up feeling as an impetus to make a change. And how lucky for us that one of those changes is sharing your words through your writing!

    • Well, first I thought a fancier car would give me the imprimatur of dignity. When that didn’t work, I decided that some “internal work” might be in order. And here we are. Thanks for the kind words!

    • Total Mad Men. Brilliant comparison, Kristen. Sadly, there’s still plenty of look-what-I-can-make-my-girl-do in corporate America.

  10. Best line of the post – “Why can’t the paralegal do this?” I had that thought countless times, to my eternal shame.

    • I know. WTF? It was Stockholm syndrome, and it’s the most shameful, right? It’s so much worse than saying, “Can’t the summers do this? Or Can’t the first years do it?” Jumping to the staff level is just appalling.

  11. Ugh! I hate that feeling of not knowing whether it’s because you’re a woman or the lowest person on the totem pole (besides the paralegal) — or if you just plain ol’ suck. The self doubt is paralyzing. I’m so glad you came to realize that place wasn’t where you belonged.

  12. So I have a workshop in mind for people who want more respect at their job, or a new job entirely. I’ll facilitate it. 9-5 on a Saturday or Sunday or any other day people want. Doesn’t need to be $1000. Maybe $100. Find a place and time and I’ll make myself available. It’s really possible, and maybe necessary, to feel more powerful in the place one lives. ’cause that’s where the ind resides most of the time.

    This won’t make me rich, but it might make a participant rich in the way they really want to be.

  13. I agree with Joyce – the last line looks so good on you. I love your insights in this piece and admire how you’ve fought and won the battle with self hatred. Gives hope to the rest of us!

  14. I found that my worst work experiences have shaped who I am. They’ve taught me to set limits and know what I am comfortable and not comfortable doing, and being willing to say so with conviction. They’re horrible moments but very useful, aren’t they?

  15. The old boys club, I’m not sure he would have asked a junior male attorney to do the same thing. You really looked at this the right way, discovering what fit you and not how you could fit in. Brilliant.

  16. It seem people find the vulnerability, the one they believe they can push or won’t stand up. Most of us have been knocked around but not everyone realizes or has the courage to make a change to stop it. You did. Hopefully someone more junior took notice.

  17. Maybe I’m melodramatic, but what he did is nauseating. In the time it took to call you and wait for you he could effing dust them himself.

    My rage at moments like this is inexplicable, but it doesn’t make me stand still to proclaim that I don’t do windows.

    When I was fresh out of college I wrote copy for a company in Boston. My first winter there I split my knee open in a fall on the ice and spent the shortest days of the year on crutches. A Neanderthal VP asked me to get him coffee. While I was on crutches. So I hobbled as dramatically as I could and tried to spill it on him.

    I couldn’t even do that right. He didn’t even notice.

  18. Yours is always one of the first on the grid that I read (i’m horribly delinquent this week) because I know I”m going to love your post and I’m never disappointed!! How do you remember all the details and emotions from these moments so well and render them so honestly? Anyway…

    Of course what he did was despicable, and I think has a lot more to say about him than any lack of confidence you may have been projecting. I think I would make a horrible lawyer for those same reasons though – you really do have to strut around with an “I don’t do windows” air and have thick skin when people test you on it. I would fail miserably at that. But I think the lawyering people are missing out because there are some sharp minds which are not always wrapped in arrogant skin. Love your post!

  19. Hmm. The young woman thing. Hits home…

    The part where you say that you needed to change your own thinking – great stuff. Powerful. And so true for all of us as we grow – we get more respect when we demand it.

  20. I didn’t have that demeanor either. Folks at my last job kept on taking advantage of me … because I let them, because I was desperate to please for some damn reason. I worked so hard, bent backwards, and got screwed. So, I don’t do that anymore. I loved this post. You’re so right on with the end here. It’s about changing your attitude and what you will take. I’m glad you were able to change.

  21. I think you nailed it in the title. Although the job may well have been a bad fit, I really think it was because you were one of the only females.

    P.S. I get sorta lost on your blog, and forget why I’m here. I was supposed to leave this comment, um, yesterday.

  22. You are so right. How we project ourselves and how we allow ourselves to be treated is a significant part of our experience in life. And I’m betting in the legal field, that rule applys tenfold!

  23. I laughed out loud on the blue line when you referenced Learned Hand. And of course I was invoking him and Cardozo. And the economics must drive so much of the crazy stuff we saw. And it’s the reason I stayed as long as I did. Mama wanted a condo!

  24. Of course you thought of something witty after the fact. When someone broadsides you like that, there’s no time to think. I had someone ask me to make coffee one morning, which shocked me, but my response was true — I don’t drink it and I don’t know how to make it. He looked angry, but he never asked again. I’m glad you don’t work there any more.

  25. Pingback: Kiss My (Gl)Ass Ceiling | Outlaw Mama

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