My Brush With the Law
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. — Shakespeare, Henry VI Pt.II
From 1991-1996 I worked as an office/mailroom clerk at the prestigious law firm of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Petersen & Daheim. It took up the top three floors — 20 – 22 — of Tacoma’s tallest building. Of the seventy or so attorneys, easily sixty were Republicans, and I’m pretty liberal. It was by far the most stressful job I’ve ever had, and I had nightmares for years afterward. That wasn’t because of the people, who were terrific to work with and always treated me courteously. Law is a high-pressure environment; most every job came with its own urgency. I was one of three full time people, and we had a couple half time students in the afternoons. It seemed like we were always running.
The job involved processing incoming and outgoing mail, sending, receiving and delivering faxes, copy jobs, and set-ups. A set-up was usually coffee, decaf, hot water for tea, and drinking water for meetings. No Styrofoam or plastic here — this was a class operation; china cups & saucers, and glasses. These could be small groups of 5 – 10 in committee meetings, or large groups of fifty or more. Lunches were ordered and for larger groups food was catered. Everything was coordinated between the reception desk and secretaries, and was usually pretty well organized.
When I was pretty new and on my first mail runs, I’d be pushing the cart along the aisles between the secretaries’ offices. I’d see them working at their computers, their glasses reflecting the blue of the screen. It looked eerie, like a science fiction movie. They all had ear buds or headphones, too, and one day I asked one what kind of music they were listening to. She laughed, and explained they were all typing from dictation tapes. Duh!
These were the big corporate boys (and a few women). There were a few divorce lawyers, and we did some litigation, or criminal law. Mostly it was corporate work, like business, real estate and probate. I thought of us usually as the bad guys. We had excellent insurance people, but they always represented the giants like Safeco or Allstate, against some poor schmuck who got really screwed over. They billed out at around $150 an hour then, kind of high, but you get what you pay for, as they say. If you wanted the very best in the area, you came to Gordon Thomas.
A few times we were on the side of truth and justice, though, as in the OK Boys Ranch case. This was a reform school of sorts in the Olympia area, with a long history of institutionalized sexual abuse of young boys. We represented a few of them, and we won. Although my only contribution was menial, it really felt good to be a small part of it.
Another abuse case I did a little bit on, I wish I could forget, but know I never will. If you have a tendency to be squeamish, my advice would be to skip to the next paragraph. One of the paralegals came in one day, really a nice person. She was so apologetic, she hated asking me to do this, she said. She would have never had anyone else do it but she was really slammed with work. I couldn’t see the big deal, it was only a small folder of photographs. Then I saw the photographs. They were of the genitals of a three-year-old girl who had been raped over (how much?) time by an adult. They were all swollen, red and purple. In all my life I’d never seen anything so horrific, and I still haven’t since. Those images are going to be with me till the end of my days.
Far to the other end of the spectrum was the day I delivered an important fax to one of the attorneys. Usually it would go to the secretary, but it was urgent. Most everyone was on a first name basis, which made for a more informal and relaxed workplace. But hardly anyone called Mr. Daheim by his first name, not even his secretary. A few close associates called him Bud, his nickname. He was one of the senior partners, and a more distinguished-looking gentleman would be hard to find. I would love to have painted his portrait, to show that strength and character. Fax in hand, I lightly knocked on his open door. He was standing with a few of the other partners, and he motioned me in. As I handed him the fax, he asked, “Do you know what I have in my other hand?” I didn’t. He said it was a check for a settlement, for $7.6 million. I said, “Mr. Daheim, would you mind very much if I held that check for a moment?” He laughed and handed it to me. There are many prescription drugs and homeopathic remedies to improve one’s circulation — holding a check for $7.6 million will also do the job.
During my time with the firm, I become more and more interested in law as I picked up little bits here and there. Every so often an attorney would come in with a list of cases to be copied from our extensive law library downstairs on 21. This task usually fell to me, because having worked at the public library for ten years, I could navigate quickly through those books. Once I was finishing a case, and the title of the next case made my eyes open wide — Silkwood v Kerr-McGee. Wow! I made a copy of that one for myself. Karen Silkwood was one of the early whistle-blowers on the nuclear industry, and she paid for it with her life.
Did I say how stressful this job was? It bears repeating. There were stories of secretaries so stressed out they had to go out to their cars and have a good cry. There were times when we got a gigantic RUSH copy job, that I wanted to go out to MY car and cry. But there were so many benefits, too. There were always no-shows for meetings, and hence free lunches to divide with the secretaries.. And the really big meetings were catered by this outfit called O’Shea’s. Croissandwiches, salads of all kinds, brioche wheels, and those giant chocolate chip cookies. Those were baked daily at O’Shea’s, and my God, were they delicious.
Christmas week Mr. Gordon would open his private bar to everyone. One of the founding partners, he was now in his late seventies, and just one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. Whether you were a senior partner or a lowly clerk, he treated everyone the same. And that was a very well-stocked bar.
A year or so after I started, the company started a 401K plan for the employees. They kicked into the kitty about 10% of your annual salary, which was incredibly generous, I think. We could then choose how much we’d invest monthly, and had a lot of choices and advice on how we wanted to invest. I put 10% into a European fund of some kind, just so I could tell people I had foreign investments. No sir, you couldn’t mess with me now — I had a diversified portfolio! And that fund grew like crazy. By the time I left, I cashed out at over $7000, even after the penalty.
After I’d been there two years with all these Republicans, Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. They hated him from the start, and I just loved jousting with some of them over it. Not all of them, of course. There were a few I just couldn’t stand, one in particular who I won’t name. He just seemed so arrogant, although to be fair, he was always decent to me. It was just his overall attitude; I really hated that guy. I remember walking past his office one day and overhearing him on the phone saying, “If I’m even THINKING about it, it’s billable.” What an ass, I thought. Then in 2010 there was a big news story — it made national headlines. A high-ranking Air Force officer was booted out because she was gay, and she sued. It eventually ended up in Federal District court, where the judge not only ruled in her favor, he made a moving and emotional speech about how devastating all this must have been for her and her family. When they mentioned the judge’s name, I just about fell off my chair. It was that guy I hated so much! Of all the attorneys I worked with, he was the very last I would have ever picked to decide that way.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be so wrong in all my life. I got such a huge natural high for a couple days. Maybe I wasn’t wrong about him, maybe he just changed over fifteen years. People do change. Whatever the reason, if I ever run into him again, I’m going to give him a big hug.
That job was one of the greatest experiences of my life. All the bad dreams were worth it, considering the friends I made and the passion for law it ignited in me, which burns more fiercely than ever. And while these people were Republicans, whose philosophy I strongly disagreed with, they bore no resemblance to today’s ideologues and extremists who call themselves Republicans. These were intelligent, articulate people you could have a reasonable debate with. I know my father will roll over in his grave if he heard me say this, but I really miss real Republicans.