Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
This week marks 15 years of friendship between Megan and me. I mentioned her in a previous blog, the secretary-turned-paralegal who has somehow managed to grow up as lacking in confidence as she is awesome.
Despite being someone I tell all my secrets (and anyone else’s secrets I get told), she doesn’t know I write at all and so won’t read this. Maybe one day she will.
She started work a few days after me, those few days feeling like a lifetime. I had come from a year of travelling, and several years of university and law college before that, surrounded by young, fun, outward-looking people to this small office where the next youngest person was about 97.
I was happy not to have any friends at work, it isn’t actually necessary, but oh how it makes it easier. When you have friends at work, you see them every day and so they ask you how Bedtime Hell was last night, whether you bought that dress you were thinking about, whether your experimental dinner went well. The minutiae of your lives is something to share in a way you wouldn’t bother if they were friends you only saw weekly, or monthly, or less.
On top of that, work friends know what you are going through for the large proportion of your waking hours. If you say that a certain client has sent you a snarky email, they will know that it is the twenty-seventh one that week and witness the effect that has on your mood. Then if you have three appointments with new clients and a call from a horrendous opponent, they will know that you need to be taken out at lunchtime. This is how Megan, after she arrived in the office to brighten my life, gave birth to the idea of Sundae Mondays. Ever since I have worked on a little project in my own head - Making Mondays Special - but that is a subject for another day.
Years later when I moved firms, I crash-landed into the middle of some long-running and bitter office politics. Rather than anyone welcoming me, I was avoided by everybody - they didn’t want to look like they were trying to get me on their side, and my team leader, whose side I arguably should have been on, if I had to choose, had no interest in me. It was a really tough time and because the fee earners in the department were fighting for work as it came in the door- something again I was oblivious to for a while, having come from a firm where people ran in the opposite direction from new work - I had very little to do except wonder why no one said hello to me as I walked around the office.
About nine months after I started, my team leader and her secretary took me for a drink to discuss some upcoming changes to our department. I can’t remember what the bar was called but it was something to do with the sky and a number. Cloud 54 or Sun 23 or, I don’t know, Thunderstorm 342. Anyway, I said I had never been there. They said 'oh really, this is our regular!' The combination of them sitting in adjacent rooms to me and sneaking off at lunchtime to this stupid bar, and now admitting it to me in either a slightly spiteful or completely thoughtless way was one of many little blows to my confidence in that first year or so.
In fact, the only person who met me for lunch over that whole time, making a 60 mile round trip, was Megan, with her husband and baby.
The good thing about work colleagues, though, is that sometimes they move on - especially from a place as unhappy as that. All of a sudden the personnel changed. I grabbed a lovely trainee and hung onto her as tightly as I could, convincing her to qualify into the department. Over time I managed to show the secretaries that I was nice, and good at my job, and that things were going to be different. We have all gone in different directions now, but as I reflect on those years working together it is not just the little daily things that make work friends important and special, it is the big things too. When you realise you have made a mistake and you go hot from your toes to your head and you feel like you are going to see your lunch again, and your friend in the next room is there to talk it through and work out an action plan. When the management double your targets and you feel like you have created your own little union. In the case of Megan, when she stood photocopying an urgent bundle with me in a hot office after hours until our feet swelled so I didn’t feel alone.
In these current 'difficult times' (yes, I am well, thank you), I haven’t seen Megan since Christmas, or the awesome people in that team. I can’t really say I have seen any of my friends. Because I’m working from home, and yet again I don’t really have any friends at work. I don’t have any enemies either, and as I said at the start of this column, that is OK. But it is tough at the moment. The passive aggression amongst colleagues without children is palpable. The martyrdom as they take on jobs I just can’t do, and the disinterest in me generally. There is not much I can do about it except continue to be nice, and good at my job, and - of course - pray that September comes quickly, because the only two options I have are to either rise above it or fail, and I’m certainly not going to give anyone the satisfaction of failing.
It is a lonely old time, not seeing clients as normal, not seeing colleagues, spending more time than anyone has ever spent in their spare room. No hugs, no one really understanding the difficulties someone else is experiencing as we are all in such different positions, and no letting off steam with friends. But those friends are still there. The ones who know you mean well in everything you do. If you are anything like me, the less you have socialised recently the less you feel like socialising, but you must seek out those real friends, go and sit two metres away from them in a beer garden, and whilst you might not feel their arms around you, you will feel their love and support.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article