Cubicle Epiphanies: Lessons and other snippets from life as a paralegal

Brooklyn sundownsTwo years ago, I moved to New York. The date on which I relocated probably had more to do with an arbitrary airline sale than with actually having a job lined up. The post-college pressure was on, but it was difficult to solidify something from afar. Somehow, once I physically planted myself in a sublet in Brooklyn, it all clicked. Soon, I had a job.

Though I went to college in the northeast, living year-round in New York City presented certain amusing novelties to me. For one, I grew up in a place where street names and neighborhoods were called things like Mira Mesa, Chula Vista, and Camino Del Rio Norte, and I thought nothing of it. In New York, I slowly grew accustomed to Schermerhorn, Kosciuszko, and Van Siclen. If I join a queue here, people ask me if I am “on line” rather than “in line,” regardless of whether I might be surfing the internet. Similarly, my native San Diego has predominantly warm, dry weather with ocean breezes. Summer there is a season people love, not dread. Here in New York, the summer heat makes one’s skin melt.

The day I interviewed at my current job, I was suffering from a typical case of humidity shock. Although I liked the type of civil rights work that my current firm boasted, when I arrived to interview, I distinctly remember something purely visceral that made me initially want to stay: air conditioning. It was an oppressive day and I did not, and still do not, own an air conditioner. After slugging through the city in my unforgiving “business attire,” all I wanted was the crisp air of a brightly-lit mini-mart. Once I walked into my firm’s reception area and felt its chilling air, I thought, as irrationally as I possibly could: I want to work HERE.

During my interview, my then-boss explained that he thought the job would be too boring for me. I took his comment as some sort of antagonizing interview tactic. I dissuaded him. I told him I love filing things and making labels. I told him I’m naturally organized and that it’s fun to make lists. I have a twisted fascination with order, and that’s what paralegals are for. He hired me.

Since then, I have had what I call cubicle epiphanies—things one realizes only through hours spent confined in a gray enclosure. Oh yes, I do some of my best thinking as my eyes relax on a string of old e-mails or I pause to ponder the metropolis of tea boxes I’ve stacked in a corner. I realized, through the advice of my parents, that it’s O.K. to slow down and enjoy my 20-something life in New York—that in fact, I would be incredibly regretful if I didn’t. Instead of planning my next move, I started to invest in what I did have: I repainted my shared apartment with roommates, joined the local library, registered to vote, assembled a cadre of all-female doctors, and even got a New York State driver’s license (I would have kept my California license, but due to a Peter Pan hairdo phase in high school, my picture really did look like a twelve-year-old boy). I also confirmed, through the work I was doing at my law firm, that I wanted to go to law school. But having peered into the reality of life as a lawyer, and especially as a young associate, I knew that I did not want that without first exploring other goals of mine, such as the Peace Corps.

During that time, I also made an implicit investment in my workplace. I realized I was among some pretty bright people (lawyers and the numerous people who support lawyers included). I asked to be included in different aspects of litigation whenever possible. I lingered in attorneys’ offices, asking what I am sure were highly ignorant and bothersome questions about the law. Sure, I spent a lot of time making copies and performing needle-in-the haystack document searches, but part of that is a paying of dues. The work was not exactly beneath me, because I was learning about anti-discrimination law from some of the best. Some trials we had were incredibly exciting and I was fortunate to be any small part of them. To add to it, I decided to embrace the office lifestyle: I had morning mugs, office friends, and the obligatory collection of dress shoes under the desk. I wore the same three pair of work pants every day for two years and spiced things up with the help of H&M and intermittent splurges at Banana. I found out that water cooler camaraderie is for real. The series The Office came to have profound comical meaning for me in a way it never would have if I hadn’t worked as a paralegal. In addition, I am grateful that I have gained certain insights about law firms not by being a lawyer, but from being in a support staff position. There is a men-in-the-trenches rapport among support staff, and a reliable gossip network like you wouldn’t believe.

In a strange way, by working at a law firm, I found a place where I could potentially belong. Law is different from the world of academia and school to which I had been obligated for most of my young life. Litigation involves intellect, but does not require utter brilliance; one’s effectiveness comes from one’s convincing use of words, not one’s high-minded exploration of theory (although the latter certainly cannot hurt). I learned about negotiation, argumentation, and the power of intuition simply from overhearing attorneys bicker over speakerphone. I learned about writing by having my own writing corrected on the spot. Legal questions piqued my interest, and I found company among people who were direct and even hot-headed, but at bottom, inherently social and warm.

I had just come from college, a place that is so intellectually invigorating that one can’t help but feel mildly incompetent. During my senior year as an undergraduate, I was perpetually anxious about my barely-completed thesis, a project that offered me no shortage of self-doubt and heart palpitations. The drama of my thesis-writing was largely due to my perfectionist approach to the act. I loved writing, but I produced slowly and suffered severe writer’s block. Some nights, it was so bad I thought I had a learning disability not yet discovered. My paranoia overtook me: I was not accomplished, I was some sort of fraud. I hallucinated that my thesis would be tossed in an un-stapled heap to the back corner of some professor’s office, its decay to be acknowledged only by a summer custodian’s broom. I now look back and know these things aren’t true. But through college, I lamented my meticulousness and my continuous struggle to separate myself from it.

For much of my life, people have told me to “not be such a perfectionist.” This is useless advice for someone who is instinctively thorough. It is akin to, as they say, telling someone who suffers from depression to “just cheer up.” Believe me, I never wanted to be the person who pulled all-nighters every time an essay was due. I never figured out how some people wrote better when they had a beer, or were able to wrap up assignments quickly so they could enjoy a weekend away. I punished myself for being a slow reader and writer, even though I knew even some of my professors shared these characteristics.

In a way I would have never expected, being a paralegal validated my natural tendency toward fastidiousness. Unlike the lonesome distress I went through in college, holed up at 5 a.m. agonizing over syntax that no one would likely notice, it is gratifying at work to notice a typo and to have someone say, “Wow, thank you SO much for finding that!” In my job, it’s an asset, not an implement of self-torture, to be careful and methodical. While I do not have an immaculate room and my inbox/outbox is really just a place to accumulate papers I can’t quite discard, it’s good to know that certain aspects of my personality are just part of who I am, and I cannot necessarily change them.

I have also realized that my time in New York is part of a continuum—I have lived here, and anticipate one day returning here. I might be perpetually en route to different adventures, but just as I have left other places in my life, my journeys to and from New York do not mean I am leaving anything forever. I knew one day I would leave my cubicle. I didn’t know whether I would leave for another job in New York, or if, like now, I would take a job on another continent.  And I’ve realized that whether it’s because of cubicle life (likely), or east-coast life in general (also likely), I find myself constantly sending out a mental love letter to San Diego. It’s hard for some people to believe, but deep down I am still a burrito-eating, In-N-Out loving, gas-guzzling, speed-driving, beach-going, kite-flying, tan-getting, strip-mall shopping Californian with a true “like,” “totally,” “um'” generational dialect that gives it all away.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from my life en route.



4 thoughts on “Cubicle Epiphanies: Lessons and other snippets from life as a paralegal

  1. Maya,
    Loved reading all the blog. So happy for you that you are doing what you dreamed of. Sounds scary to me, but then again, I too signed up for the PC but did not get far as the Viet Nam war was on and many college fellows wanted to get into PC also. As it was, my induction into the army was canceled several weeks before d-day as they didn’t need any more trouble from San Francisco State students.
    thanks for including us in your emails.
    I shall keep up with your blog and surely as you are a Lau/Treacy you will snap a lot of photos which we adore.
    Reading blog about NY days allowed me to learn much more about you. Thanks, Brian

  2. This was a great entry. I love your insights on cubicle life. I have just started a teaching job and appreciate the need for fastidiuosness. I love that now I get to nitpick about language and get paid for it. I also constantly miss San Diego, even though I love Norway. San Diego is the kind of place that holds a special place in one’s heart, even if it sounds corny.

  3. I love this blog- I just ran across it randomly and have so much in common. I work as a paralegal at a civil rights law firm too, although my job sounds a bit different from yours, but I also have a passion for international development and human rights work, and am hoping to work abroad for an extended period of time before moving on to the next step (law school, I’d hope). It is really interesting to see where I could end up and what turns my life could take if I follow in your footsteps. You’re a great writer too. Thanks for the insights 🙂

    • Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. Thanks for reading! It’s interesting that now that I’m in Peace Corps, I enjoy life more and am thinking less and less about law school. I enjoy the work/life balance. But we’ll see. Keep in touch. M.

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