The Ins & Outs of
Law Firm Mismanagement

Sample Story: Reception Lines

So anyway, I'm sitting there one day, 54th-floor reception, and this guy comes in, a client I suppose. He walks up to me and says, "Mr. Helman to see Mrs. Barker."

And I say, "Is Mrs. Barker expecting you?"

And he says, "Not exactly, but I'm sure she'll see me. Just tell her Fred Helman is here."

So I say, "I'm afraid Mrs. Barker is not seeing anyone today."

But he doesn't give up, "Is she in?" he asks.

And I say, "No, Mrs. Barker is not in now."

So he goes right on, "Will she be back soon?"

So finally I have to tell him, "Not likely. Mrs. Barker passed away four weeks ago."

Well, of course Mr. Helman is a bit surprised at that news, but undaunted. "She should have seen me last time I was here," he says.

When I ask what he means by that, he explains that he is a life insurance salesman who has been encouraging Mrs. Barker to increase her coverage for years. And he asks me whether there are any other partners in the firm in the office that day "around the age of the late Mrs. Barker."

So that's life in the reception bizz. Not that we have people asking for deceased partners every day. It's probably only about twice a week. Just kidding. But you'd be surprised how many people we get who are trying to sell something or another to people at the firm. And they're pretty darn clever about it, too.

We had this fellow who used to pose as a messenger from Speedy-Serve Messenger Service. He would come to the reception desk and say that he was there to deliver an envelope to this or that attorney at our firm. Then once he got past the receptionist, he would go door-to-door trying to peddle everything from hot wristwatches to adult movies. We'd have caught this guy several months earlier than we did except for the fact that quite a number of our lawyers found his prices quite attractive and his merchandise of high quality.

This is no laughing matter, since we at the reception desks are the first line of defense for the security of the firm. To protect that security, we are authorized by the Fairweather Receptionist Manual to "exercise all necessary and reasonable force."

Our first defense is to ask somebody who is about to enter our space, "Excuse me, but may I help you?" This deters most criminals. If that fails, our next line of defense is to repeat the same words, only MUCH LOUDER. If neither of these works, the Receptionist Manual advises us to try one of the following:

1. apply the karate techniques you learned during receptionist training to flip the offender over the reception desk and into the wall directly behind it;

2. call the building security office by looking up the number, which is someplace in that little book that must be around here somewhere;

3. take out your bamboo shooter and blow a poison dart into the offender;

4. inquire as to how greatly the offender values his kneecaps;

5. press the button behind your desk, which will sound an alarm that will cause at least forty lawyers to be trampled to death in the crowd that rushes into the reception area to ask, "What the hell was that?"

We tried to beef up our security after the firm hired Chief Fitzpatrick. The firm had a pedal installed on the floor underneath all the receptionists' desks, which we could step on when a suspicious-looking person entered the reception area. Pushing down the pedal caused a red light to flash in the Chief's office, signaling him to come running to our aid. We unhooked the pedal system, though, when clients objected to seeing a 6'4" Irishman burst into the reception area with his pistol drawn and shouting, "Keep calm and no one's gonna get hurt."

Getting back to poor Mrs. Barker, though, at least she died with her boots on. Or, more accurately, with one boot on. It was February and snowing to beat the band. Mrs. Barker was seated at her desk, leaning over to pull off her boots, and had gotten halfway when her Maker called her. She wasn't discovered until later in the day, when somebody brought in an interviewee from Harvard Law School. In case you're wondering, the interviewee did accept our firm's offer. She said that Mrs. Barker had not been noticeably less responsive to her questions than the other interviewers she'd seen at our firm that day.

Of course, one of our biggest challenges as receptionists is keeping track of our lawyers. First step is just knowing everyone in the office. For the attorneys, at least we have a picture book (or "pig book," as we affectionately refer to it). To help us perform our tasks, we have developed an extensive, high-tech continuing receptionist training program. Each receptionist is required to pass a test every six months in which slides of attorneys—front, back, and side views—are flashed up on a screen at half-second intervals, and the receptionist must identify every attorney until she reaches a 97% accuracy-rate. Another test requires receptionists to carry on a conversation with somebody standing in front of them, while at the same time watching a video screen of lawyers at the firm going in various directions. Receptionists must then answer questions regarding which attorneys appeared in the video, what directions they were going in, and whether they were returning to their office.

It's not just lawyers we need to keep track of, though, it's everyone. In fact, it's not the lawyers who are the toughest to deal with, it's the secretaries—especially secretaries of partners—who think they rule the heavens and the earth (not all of them, of course). We receptionists are supposed to know exactly where everyone on our floor is at every minute. The other day I had a secretary of a partner up here looking for an associate. She asked me where the associate was, and I told her that I thought I had seen him waddle into the men's room. She actually asked me how long I thought he'd be.

Not that we receptionists don't recognize the importance of knowing where our attorneys are. In fact, we at the Fairweather firm have developed a system to help us keep track of all our attorneys. The west wall of each reception area is covered with a large metal map of the office, the city, and the world. Each attorney has a magnetic likeness which we move around to indicate our latest information regarding that attorney's whereabouts.

Of course, with the advances in technology, we may not be so far from the time when we can do away with having to move magnets around and still know exactly where each attorney is at every minute. All attorneys will walk around with a tiny monitor in their briefcases that will allow us at the reception desk to track on a screen exactly where they are at all times.

Of course, it's very important for us receptionists to appear friendly. We're taught to smile and greet everyone with "Good morning [or afternoon], may I help you?" Some of our former receptionists found that script unduly stifling, and experimented with their own greetings, which ranged from, "Hey Toots, what's happenin'?" to "How very good of you to visit us this day. If there is any small way in which I may be of assistance, do not hesitate to give me a holler." Neither of those variations found particular favor with the partners, and their originators have been dispatched to positions for which Lt. Colonel Clinton L. Hargraves, CPA believes they may be better suited.

Though being a receptionist has its problems, it does help you to hone your powers of observation. As Yogi Berra used to say, "you can observe a lot by just looking." And we receptionists have a lot of time to look. In fact, an experienced receptionist ought to be able to identify who has come into the reception area without even asking. For example:

An attorney at the firm—just nods or makes a quick wave with the hand

An opposing attorney—carries large black box-like document case, does not smile, asks to use phone

A client—picks up copy of Wall Street Journal, Forbes, or Barrons; looks around and assesses the contents of the reception area as if he had paid for a major portion of it

A messenger—wears uniform, bounces his head up and down, cannot hear what you say to him because of earphones in ears

An attorney's spouse—does not tell you name since expects to be recognized, even if you have never seen them before

An interviewee—nervous, asks for washroom before giving you name; the only person who picks up and appears to read any firm brochures that are out on the coffee table

A salesperson—calls you by the name on the nameplate on your desk; compliments you on the floral arrangement

Exactly what we should use these powers of observation for is not so clear, but I don't think they hurt. If nothing else, they help us pass the time of day.