Part friend, part foe. In the legal field, nearly anyone can be a frienemy. Paralegals themselves play this role splendidly (just ask the clerk I called six times about a tax exemption affidavit). In this column and the next, I’d like to introduce you to two of my favorite frienemies: The IT Guy and the law clerk. Undeniably, both are irreplaceable and bring important skills to the table. But both can drive me absolutely insane.
Let’s start with The IT Guy. It’s 10:40 p.m. and I am barefoot at the copy machine. There’s a pizza stain on my blouse, a binder clip holding up my hair. I’m staring blankly into space daydreaming of a warm climate and a cold drink served by an Australian rugby player when a piercing alarm sounds: “Off Line-Error 0021YHK.”
There are many things I am good at. Attempting to re-establish a network connection between a server and a $30,000 machine is not one of them.
I call The IT Guy on his cell: voicemail. Home phone: no answer. Forty minutes and no response later, I’m screaming obscenities through the empty halls like a lunatic. When I hear my phone ringing, I sprint to breathlessly answer the call. Help is on the way!
The IT Guy arrives and settles at my desk. I lean across to see my frienemy Google the error code. With all the restraint I am capable of mustering, I ask, “What seems to be the problem?” In response, he delivers a dissertation about routers, networks, IP addresses and system time-outs. Not only do I not understand a word coming out of this man’s mouth, but to be frank, I don’t care. I’ve still got 1,700 copies to make.
Our eyes meet as we slowly begin to understand the gravity of the situation before us. I’m tempted to start drinking and can tell he is seriously considering the same. Instead, we struggle through the pre-dawn hours, attempting small talk between server restarts and batches of 35 prints made from every personal printer I can lay my hands on. We both look like hell: I’m shoeless, have mascara smeared across my face and am wearing half a pizza. He’s got sleep in his eyes and remnants of his infant daughter’s supper on the sleeve of a rumpled Sex Pistols T-shirt. He mutters obscenities at the computer as I sit on the floor cursing opposing counsel for their artfully delivered pre-trial memo hand-delivered late the previous day.
Around 3 a.m., I tempt fate. “How’s it going?”
“It would be going better if you didn’t spend all day on Pinterest,” he answers begrudgingly.
It. Is. On. The next 20 minutes are a tirade of slights and insults tossed between us like hormonal teenagers.
“Maybe you should install my updates instead of playing on-line Dungeons and Dragons all day!”
“Everything’s in TrialDirector, so why do you even need this?”
And so it goes, back and forth until we fall quiet with our thoughts.
“Found it,” he finally whispers. He starts the program as I start a pot of coffee.
Somewhere around 5 a.m. we wrap things up. As we begin to part ways in the parking lot, he notices the IHOP is open across the street. It turns out that my frienemy and I both like our coffee black, enjoy the Sex Pistols and have a mutual disdain for the administrative assistant whose sole purpose seems to be sending out birthday reminders. Before I know it, we’re laughing (gasp) and swapping trial horror stories.
It goes without question that paralegals and IT professionals speak a different language. Sure, we can stumble along, avoiding contact until forced together under the worst of circumstances, but I believe there’s a better way. Lurking beneath our stubborn exteriors, paralegals and IT guys (and gals) have a tremendous opportunity to learn from one another.
Paralegals need to remember the bitter truth that technology will inevitably fail. Problems sometimes need to be googled. My frienemy is not Steve Jobs and therefore doesn’t know every error code the CopyMax 3015 is capable of producing. Why I expected him to know otherwise, I blame solely on the fact that I was tired, irritable, it was midnight and I was starving.
Let’s drop the attitudes and cut through the red tape and PC lingo. I’ll save my obscenities for the empty office hallways if my IT frienemy will stop talking to me like I’m a moron. Let’s all just admit that I care as much about system time-outs as he does about my exhibit log. In these modern legal times, it’s nearly impossible to avoid one another, so let’s start asking the questions that really matter: What information can I give him that would actually help solve my problem? What is the end result that I’m looking for?
At the end of the day, my frienemy and I share a common goal. It’s high time we have an unrestrained, real conversation about what works, what fails, the goal we’re both trying to achieve and how the hell we’re going to get there.
Three hours later, we’re showered and suited in our finest, proudly maneuvering 18 bankers boxes, three laptops, two projectors and one very large screen through the security detail of the Richland County courthouse. TrialDirector is working like clockwork, the exhibits are marked, indexed and collated, and the duct tape he remembered is successfully preventing our boss from falling on his face on the way to the witness stand. We catch a glimpse at one another across the courtroom, passing a polite smile before quickly diverting our eyes.
Perhaps we both feel a sense of dread, imagining the next disaster that will, undoubtedly come knocking on our door. It will happen at the worst time. It will catch us at our very worst. It is because of this truth that I urge all paralegals, legal support staff and IT staff to come together now. Don’t wait until the server crashes at midnight. Open a dialogue, a real dialogue. Ask the hard questions, give the hard answers. Buck up, suck it up and begin.
Legal world frienemies share the same goal. If you attempt to cross the great divide now, you just may find that the enemy lies within yourself.
Lindsay Valek is a litigation paralegal for the Law Office of Robert Dodson, in Columbia, S.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.