Talking to the Walls

After finishing my first full week at Jezic & Moyse, a mid-sized law firm, I have made several observations about the organizational culture that have surprised me.

The employees of the firm are the ones who sit in cubicles (while the attorneys have their own offices—an interesting dynamic I addressed in a previous post). These employees are law clerks and paralegals, and the way they interact with each other is friendly and familial, although not the way normal human beings would interact with each other in the real world. They chat with each other, on and off, throughout the day; everything from “hey, did your client end up taking that plea deal” to “what are your plans for the weekend.” The language they use is far from formal—there’s often a lot of swearing (particularly if the subject is the trump administration or interactions with in-laws). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they seem like they are friends, they are certainly friendly. Sort of like they were thrown in this part of the office together so they’re making the most of it, but they would never spend time together outside of work. These interactions would all seem decent and standard, if it weren’t for one small difference that sets it far apart from normal person-to-person interactions: no one makes eye contact when they speak. They are not even facing the person to whom they are speaking at all. Everyone faces the wall in their cubicle, and although we all sit on chairs that spin around with ease, no one bothers to spin around when they talk. As someone new to this environment, I find it very jarring, but I doubt any of them even notice it anymore. One person asked me what I was up to this weekend, so I turned my chair around to face her and responded. However, she was still facing away from me, although reacting and responding to what I was saying. At that moment, she wasn’t even in the midst of working on something—she was nearing the end of her lunch break and she wasn’t looking at anything in particular. But yet she was facing away from me as we had our conversation. Most conversations occur like this—people seemingly talking to their computer screens or cubicle walls, even though they are addressing the person working behind them.

While this is a particular and rather strange facet of the interactions between the employees around me, there are other observations I’ve had that speak to the larger culture of the whole firm. First, everyone eats lunch at their desk, and some people keep working as they’re eating. While there’s a small area with a fridge, microwave, and coffee machine, the area is too small for any tables or chairs. There’s no real “break room,” or place that people congregate to eat together or take a quick break together. People eat at their desk or work through their lunches, which I believe speaks to the always-working culture of the entire firm. To work as many hours per day as possible is at least implicitly encouraged.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the work is also very solitary. Attorneys take meetings with clients in the afternoons, but the employees don’t seem to have meetings nearly at all, at least from what I’ve seen so far. People practically never leave their desks, so if there’s any collaboration between people, it must occur through email or an occasional phone call. It gives me the feeling that teamwork—the kind that requires working with others and consistent collaboration—is lacking at this firm. I wonder if this emphasizes the hierarchy of the firm, in that attorneys delegate assignments to employees, rather than meet with them regularly and work together on cases.

 

Addendum: On Monday, I ventured over to the criminal defense side of the office. I was searching for a file, and happened to be standing between two attorneys’ offices, which were about 10 feet away from each other. Both office doors were open, and I could hear the attorneys were both on the phone. It became clear to me very quickly that they were talking to each other. I’m pretty sure if the phones stopped working, they would be able to hear the other person from their office. It amazed me that they were so close, and yet instead of walking ten feet to have a conversation face-to-face, they called each other to discuss a case.

One thought on “Talking to the Walls

  • June 12, 2019 at 3:32 pm
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    Wow, what a fascinating observation. It’s kind of weird. I wonder if this is something that routinely happens in law offices, or if it is this particular group of individuals. Despite the many elements of legal work that need to be completed for a case, which could all be done individually and independently, it does seem that at some point – there would be a collaborative moment. And it seems you had to figure this out yourself – actually turn around to engage and encounter someone’s back when you’re responding – it is not something that is discussed in regards to office culture. In terms of the hours (eating at your desk, working while eating) – that seems in keeping with the ‘persona’ of attorneys (working all the time, billable hours, etc.). I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this circumstance as you move forward and spend more time there. Really strange though.

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