You don’t mind taking the blame do you? You’re just an articling student after all.
If you`re having a rough day, I hope you will read this and feel a little less alone. As awful as JD`s experience was I think we will all be able to relate in some way. I know I definitely can. So let me tell you her story...
JD was having a rough day.
She’d just returned to her office to find two more files on her chair. The top one had no note. The bottom one had a sticky that said “Urgent.”
Great. Just great, she thought. She was already billing 12 – 15 hours a day and 6 or so each day on the weekends. She had been for the past month and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. She was exhausted. The files were starting to pile up, the to-do list seemed to double every day, and she was scared that she was missing things. She was terrified to disappoint and even more terrified that she would mess something up or forget to do something important.
Most of the time she felt like she didn’t know what she was doing – and wasting a senior lawyer’s time to ask for help was not an option.
Earlier that morning JD had received an urgent email from a partner she worked for asking why she hadn’t yet sent over the application materials she was supposed to have prepared for a certain file. She was caught off guard. She had no idea what application the partner was referring to. In fact, she had no idea what file the partner was referring to. Panic set in.
She searched her office. She searched her emails. She looked the file up on the network. The file was completely unfamiliar to her. She searched her mind again and again. No luck. She had no recollection of talking to the partner about the file and no idea what application she was supposed to have prepared.
She finally got up the courage to send a reply email asking what application the partner was referring to. When she didn’t immediately get a response, she tried to focus on the million and one other tasks she had on her plate, hoping against hope that the partner would respond saying “Oh sorry about that, sent the email to the wrong person.”
Half an hour went by, then an hour. No response. She didn’t know what to do.
She was scared. It was completely possible she had forgotten. She was so overwhelmed.
Her fears were right, she thought, she had forgotten something important. She would be fired. She was incompetent. Her life was over.
JD stared at the mounds of paper on her desk and the boxes of documents creating a fortress all around her and fought back tears. How could she ever do all of this? No wonder she was missing things! Why did she feel so alone?
She decided she needed to go to the bathroom to 'get her shit together'. She needed to take a minute, compose herself, and come back in a better head space so she could start tackling her to-do list.
She had just cleared her head to a point where she didn’t have to actively fight back the tears, when she returned to her office to find those two new files sitting on her chair.
She took a deep breath, told herself it was ok, and took a closer look at the file that said “Urgent” – it was that file. The one she was supposed to have prepared the application on. She was just getting it now! She hadn’t forgotten. She really had never seen it before.
She checked her email. There was no response from the partner. No missed calls. No apology. No acknowledgement that she was just receiving the file today. No acceptance of responsibility whatsoever. Just that one sticky note message - “Urgent”.
Anger. Frustration. Betrayal. Helplessness. Emotions swirled in her gut.
Just then, one of the other articling students walked in and asked if she wanted to grab a coffee.
JD looked up and tried to respond but all that came were the tears.
The emotions she had been holding in for weeks could no longer be restrained. She explained the situation to the other student through her tears and they hugged. The other student understood. The advice she got was to go and speak with the partner that was the head of the student committee about how overwhelmed she was feeling.
After making a second attempt that day to compose herself, that’s exactly what she did. She explained how overwhelmed she was feeling, how exhausted she was, and how afraid she was that she was going to mess something up, and the response she got was not all that helpful. Not that the partner didn’t understand or try to help. He did. And he really did care. The problem was that he understood it all too well. He told JD that even at his level (he had recently made partner) he often feels overwhelmed, and he usually ends up working too much. He advised JD to go and talk to the individual partners she worked for and ask to be given less work if she felt she really had too much on her plate.
Deep down JD knew this was the answer she would get. It’s the answer we get all too often – a little sympathy, an “I’m in the same boat”, and a “that’s just the way it is”.
She sighed, thanked him for listening, and got up and left feeling just as helpless as she had when she had entered, and even more disheartened at the thought that it didn’t really get much better, even in partnership.
Over the next couple days JD did take his advice and went to speak to a few of the partners she worked for. She got a few deadlines pushed back and although nothing was taken off her plate completely, by the time the head of the student committee dropped by her office to check in a few days later, she was feeling a little more in control of things. Her working hours weren’t any shorter but at least she felt like she didn’t have to increase her hours in order to survive. Her life was somewhat manageable.
And then JD learned something she wasn’t expecting. The head of the student committee was saying that he was glad she was feeling better because it would not be good for her future if she wasn’t able to manage her workload. He told JD that he had heard from one of the partners she worked for that she “was always too busy” and that she “didn’t do his work”.
When JD asked what he was talking about she found out it was that same partner, the one that had left those files on her chair.
And she had to ask - what was the work the partner was saying she “didn’t do”? You guessed it. It was that file - the one with the “Urgent” sticky note on it. The partner had been going around telling the committee of people that were to decide whether she had a future in this firm that she just “didn’t do his work” without even talking to her about it first. And on top of that everything he had said about her had turned out to be completely untrue. The reason she hadn’t done his work was because she hadn’t been asked to do it yet.
Luckily JD was able to explain to the head of the student committee what had really happened, but she still felt defeated. It made her worry about what else was being said about her behind closed doors; what else was being blamed on her without her knowledge.
“I knew articling wouldn’t be easy, but this I never imagined,” she said. “I mean, we’re all lawyers, why can’t we just communicate with each other – to our faces?”
This was her career, her reputation, and at that moment she felt completely powerless to create it and preserve it.
We all have rough days, and I`m sure each of you has had an experience like JD`s where you`ve felt powerless or taken advantage of or like you had no control your own future or reputation. If you do have a story you`d like to share please get in contact with me, you never know the effect you could have on someone else`s day, just by making them feel like they are not alone.
We are all in this together.