I had several near death experiences as a young attorney. A legal memorandum I drafted to the managing partner was returned to me, because it contained, in my assistant's mind, too many revisions. She wrote across the top of the page, in perfect penmanship, "If you can't do it right the first time, don't do it at all."
When your assistant is assigned to the two most prolific attorneys in the firm, both of whom are senior to you, it's good to have the ability to type. While some of my friends' sewing machines hummed late into the night, my fingers were glued to the keyboard. If my monitor had emitted UV rays, I would have had a beautiful tan.
Once, after Sunday dinner, as I finished composing a document I'd started at 9 a.m., the screen went blank. My daughter had crawled beneath the desk, fascinated by the glowing orange switch on the surge protector. She crawled out from beneath my feet, placed her chubby hands on my thighs and pulled herself up, smiling. "Mommy! I pushed the button!"
My husband had set up our new computer the day before and hadn't enabled auto-save.
One evening, the department head came around the corner to find my assistant, who was collecting overtime pay, reading a magazine and digesting the free dinner she'd eaten earlier, waiting for her nails to dry before she called the cab company to use the voucher the office manager had given her before the office closed. I was seated at her desk, typing feverishly. He winced and pulled me around the corner.
"That's bargaining unit work you're doing there, Sis."
"She had a meltdown," I explained. "It's a lot easier this way."
The most heart-stopping of the heart-stopping moments, though, came later, after I'd worked my way up the ranks until I was partner and my work took priority. I'd arrived.
I returned from moderating a day-long seminar. I'd called several times during the day, to ask for my messages. Each time I'd called, my new assistant had said, "All's quiet, here."
After I hung my coat, she walked into my office, seated herself in the guest chair and handed me a stack of pink slips, with precise checkmarks in the appropriate boxes and the names and telephone numbers of the callers written at the top. A third of the way through the stack, I noticed one marked "URGENT." The caller was the general counsel of a Fortune 100 corporation.
"This one came in at 10:00 a.m.," I said. "Why didn't you tell me about it when I called at the 10:15 break?"
"You didn't need to be bothered," she smiled. "He called at 9:00 a.m. and told me he needed a status on all the matters you're handling by noon tomorrow."
It wasn't an unusual request and it was manageable. What concerned me was the phone call directly to me an hour later.
She continued. "You'd be so proud of me," she said, "I told Mr. Muckety-muck that if he wanted that information, he'd have to submit his request in writing."