Bill's Blog

In Praise of Administrative Professionals

Posted on April 24th, 2014

(This past Wednesday was Administrative Professionals Day.  This column is dedicated to my favorite administrative professional, Jane Berry, and to all the administrative professionals who make their "boss" look good.)        

         Let’s face it.  We lawyers can’t go it alone.  Whether we are a solo practitioner or the senior partner at the mega firm of Engulf & Devour, we have to be supported by a legal dream team of administrative professionals. 

            When we are in the courtroom or the boardroom, we depend upon wonderful folks back at our office who greet the clients, answer the phones, process the words (a task formerly known as “typing”), organize the files, schedule the appointments, cancel the appointments, make sure all the business trains run on time, and above all, make the boss look good even if he or she is really a board-certified goober.

            Being one of those board-certified goobers myself, I am very appreciative of the administrative professionals in my life, including my assistant, Jane, my receptionist, Kim, my office manager, Peggie, my IT computer geek, Curt, and my private investigator, Columbo.

             In their honor, and in the honor of all administrative professionals, I have compiled a list of my all-time favorite administrative professionals, with one very important qualification.  No one on this list has ever worked for me.  They have all entertained me on television.  With apologies to David Letterman, here is my “Top Ten” list of my all-time favorite administrative professionals.

             10.       Paul Drake – No doubt about it, Perry Mason was the greatest trial lawyer of all time.  For ten seasons he won nationally-televised jury trials each week, proving his client was not guilty of the charge of murder.  And how did he do this?  Well, he didn’t use the weenie “reasonable doubt” defense.  No, he proved his client was innocent by exposing the real killer right in the courtroom.  I think he pulled this off week after week after week for years, not just because he was a great trial lawyer, but because he had the greatest private investigator of all time, Paul Drake.  Drake was the one who found the real killer and made sure he came to the trial of Perry’s innocent client.  And Paul Drake also wore really cool sports jackets. 

             9.         Della Street – Yes, Perry won all of his trials, not only because he had a great private investigator, Paul Drake, but also because he had an incredible personal assistant, Della Street.  There is a wide-spread misperception that Della was Perry’s secretary.  In fact, she was his paralegal.  Perry’s secretary was Gertie.  If you don’t believe me, just watch some Perry Mason reruns.  You will never see Della doing any typing or even taking down dictation.  That was done by Gertie.  Della was working with Paul Drake to find the real killer for Perry. 

             8.         Mary Tyler Moore – No, not Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show or as Mary Richards when she moved to Minneapolis and went to work for Mr. Grant at WJM-TV.  No, the first time I saw Mary Tyler Moore was when she was a telephone receptionist on the 1950s TV show Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  And when I saw her, all I saw were her legs.  In that series, we never saw her beautiful face.  In every scene in which she appeared, we saw only her legs and heard her voice.  Take it from me, Mary Tyler Moore has some great legs.  I was quite taken by them even though I was only about six years old when I watched the show.

             7.         Lucy Carmichael – We all loved Lucy in the 1950s, when she was Mrs. Ricky Ricardo and was always trying to sneak her way into the cast of one of his shows at the Tropicana.  But by the 1960s, Lucy and Ricky had split the sheets, and their son, Little Ricky, had become the lead singer for the group, Dino, Desi and Billy.  So what did Lucy do?  She came back to TV on The Lucy Show as Lucy Carmichael, secretary to Mr. Mooney, played by the classic TV sitcom character, Gail Gordon.  Mr. Mooney did not run the Tropicana, and Fred and Ethel did not live across the hall.  But Lucy still had lots of “s’plaining” to do, and it was great fun.

             6.         Carol Kester – Carol was the receptionist for psychiatrist Bob Newhart on the Bob Newhart Show.  She also served as receptionist for Dr. Jerry Robinson, an orthodontist, who shared an office suite with Bob.  Funny, but we have otherwise never encountered an office sharing arrangement between a psychiatrist and an orthodontist.  This, no doubt, came in handy for folks who thought their teeth were driving them crazy.

             5.        Pam Beasley – Pam served as the receptionist for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  She was the classic administrative professional for her boss, the totally dysfunctional Michael Scott. 

             4.         Aunt Bea – Okay, she was not on the payroll for the Mayberry Sheriff’s Department.  Nevertheless, she was an unofficial administrative professional for the Sheriff’s Office, bringing wonderful home-cooked meals not only to Andy and Barney, but also to inmates in the Mayberry jail, including Otis, Ernest T. Bass, and Briscoe Darling.

             3.         Murphy Brown’s secretaries (all of them!) – One of the greatest long-running gags on the sitcom, Murphy Brown was that on almost every episode, Murphy had a new secretary.  They were played by such extraordinary celebrities as Bette Midler, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Don Rickles, and Marcia Wallace, the actress who played Bob Newhart’s receptionist, Carol.  (See above.)  In a hilarious send off, Bob Newhart made an appearance on the Murphy Brown Show to take Carol back to his office in Chicago.

             2.         Mrs. Wiggins – Played by Carol Burnett (in my opinion the greatest comedienne of all time), she was the secretary for Mr. Tudball, played by Tim Conway (in my opinion, the greatest character comedian of all time).  In a running joke, Mr. Tudball would try to communicate with Mrs. Wiggins by an intercom system that never worked.  It was quite simply wet-your-pants funny.

             And the number one administrative professional of all time. . . drum roll . . . Miss Jane Hathaway!  Yes, Miss Jane Hathaway, able assistant to Mr. Drysdale, the President of the Commerce Bank of Beverly Hills in the classic ‘60s sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies.  Ms. Hathaway ran this fabulously-successful bank that, to my knowledge, never received a bail-out from the federal government.  And she did it with no assistance at all from her boss, Mr. Drysdale, who spent his full-time at the Clampett mansion smoozing the bank’s biggest customers, Jed, Granny, Jethro, and Elly May.

              Miss Jane was educated, erudite, and sophisticated.  A real woman of letters.  And in my all-time favorite Beverly Hillbillies episode, she tried to impart her knowledge and wisdom to Jethro.  “Jethro,” she told him, “under my tutelage, someday people will look at you and say, ‘There goes Jethro Bodine, BA, MA, Ph.D.’”  And Jethro responded, “Miss Jane, you are a smart lady, but that ain’t the way you spell Bodine!”

             So there you have it, the greatest administrative professionals of all time!  And while I have been sitting in my office dictating this, my phone has been ringing constantly.  Fortunately, my administrative professional, Jane, has been answering the phone and lying like Pinocchio, telling my clients that I am in a very important bidness meeting and will be getting back to them soon.

             God bless Jane for covering for me!  I really need her.  I am looking and acting more and more like Mr. Tudball every day. 

When I was a little boy growing up in the Baptist church that my father pastored in North Memphis, our congregation would gather together on Wednesday nights for mid-week prayer meeting.

            Mid-week prayer meeting was much less formal than a Sunday morning service.  There wasn’t a choir behind my father; there wasn’t a music minster; there wasn’t even an organist.  Rather, at the appointed hour my Dad would simply walk up to the front of the congregation, recite an opening prayer, and then he would ask a question.  It was the same question every week:  “Would anybody here tonight like to testify?”

            Now let me quickly add for those of you who are not from the Evangelical Church that the term “testify” in the Evangelical Church is something very different from what you and I mean as lawyers.  Dad never put anybody under oath.  He never cross-examined anybody.  When he asked brothers and sisters to “testify,” it was an invitation for the members of the church to stand up and briefly tell their story and talk about how blessed they were to be a part of the congregation.

            Well, as we begin Law Week, I would like to testify about how I became a lawyer and how blessed you and I are to share a life in the law.

            I am a first generation lawyer and proud of it.  I come from a long line of preachers, not only my father, but my great-grandfather (a Methodist preacher) and my three uncles who are also preachers.  All the men in my family are preachers.  My late mother wanted to be a preacher as well, but we were Southern Baptists, and when it comes to hiring preachers, Southern Baptists are not equal opportunity employers.

            And so I grew up with the conviction that I was going to someday be a minister like my Dad and all the men in my family.  But a funny thing happened to me on the way to seminary:  I met three trial lawyers.  And I met them all when I was a little boy. 

            The first trial lawyer I met came into my home on a September night in 1957.  He wasn’t invited in.  He didn’t break in, but he suddenly appeared in black and white on a Sylvania TV screen.  His name was Perry Mason.

            I didn’t know what trial lawyers were until I saw Perry Mason. 

            Perry had two remarkable attributes that I have never seen in any other lawyer.  First, Perry always represented innocent clients.  And second, Perry always won. . .and won big. 

            Perry was a criminal defense lawyer who always defended clients wrongfully accused of murder.  Perry did not believe in the reasonable doubt defense.  None of that “if it doesn’t fit you must acquit” from Perry.  The way Perry won at trial was that he proved his client’s innocence by proving who the actual killer really was, because, incredibly, the actual killer always came to trial and sat in the gallery.  You see, Perry’s cross examination didn’t just wear down the witness on the witness stand.  You and I can do that.  He would wear down the real killer in the back of the courtroom to the point that Perry’s cross examination would be interrupted dramatically with the real killer standing up shouting, “Stop it Mr. Mason.  He didn’t do it.  I did it.”  It was magnificent.

            I’m not sure why they did this.  Hypothetically, if I ever kill someone and some other innocent soul just gets charged with the homicide, I ain’t coming to his trial! 

            But on that September night when I was only five years old, I met the second trial lawyer of my life.  He also came on my television screen.  His name was Hamilton Burger.  He was the prosecutor on the Perry Mason Show, and he had the longest losing streak in the history of American jurisprudence. 

            Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason tried one case a week from September of 1957 through May of 1966.  They took the summers off, but that’s thirty-six trials a year for ten years.  Hamilton lost three hundred thirty-six consecutive trials to Perry, all on national television.

            Now when I was a little boy I wanted more than anything to grow up to be a trial lawyer like Perry.  I wanted to always represent innocent clients and I wanted to win week after week after week on national television, and proving who the real killer was.  But I am now in my thirty-sixth year of law practice, and I will tell you that my hero is not Perry Mason.  My hero is Hamilton Burger.  Why?  Simple.  Here was a man who lost one trial a week on national television to Perry Mason and never lost his job as District Attorney!

            There was a third trial lawyer I met when I was a child.  He came into my life at a “pichur show” (as we called them in those days) 1962.  His name was Atticus Finch.  Atticus Finch had something in common with Perry Mason and something in common with Hamilton Burger.  Like Perry, he had an innocent client. . .Tom Robinson.  But like Hamilton Burger, Atticus lost…He lost the biggest care of his career.

I will never forget the scene in the movie after the jury had returned a verdict against Tom Robinson.  Atticus Finch slowly packed his briefcase and began to walk out of the courtroom.  The African American citizens of Maycomb sitting in the gallery rise in his honor.  Atticus’ children, Scout and Jem, are also in the gallery, sitting with Reverend Sikes, a minister.  Reverend Sykes awakens a sleeping Scout and Jem and, addressing Scout by her proper name, said , “Miss Jean Louise, will you stand up.  Your father is passing.”

            It was that moment I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer.  But you see it was a secret I had to keep because everybody in the family was expecting me to be a minister.  And this is where my story closes.  It closes on June 10, 1964, my twelfth birthday.  On that day, my mother made me a birthday dinner with all my favorite food:  fried chicken, fried corn on the cob, fried peach pie.  We were Southern Fried Baptists; that’s what we ate.

            And then she gave me my birthday present.  I unwrapped it.  It was a Bible.  It wasn’t just any Bible.  It was a Scofield Reference Bible, just like my Daddy preached from every Sunday.  And it came with a big theological string attached, because my mother said, “Son, you are going to use this Bible for the rest of your life because you are going to be a minister like your Dad.” 

            My heart sank.  I couldn’t tell her about Perry Mason.  I couldn’t tell her about Hamilton Burger.  I couldn’t tell her about Atticus Finch, so I just said, “Thank you.”

            Later that night I went to my Dad.  I said, “Dad, thank you for the Bible, but I have a secret to tell you.  Mom expects me to be a minister and I want to be a lawyer.” 

My Dad looked at me and said, “Your mother is right.”  Now my heart really sank, because on my twelfth birthday I was going to disappoint my mother and my father.  But then Dad said this:  “I believe that you mother is right and that you are going to be called to a life of ministry.  Some people are called to lives of ministry as ordained ministers.  Some people are called to lives of ministry as teachers or architects, and maybe, maybe, there’s a life of ministry in the law.”  Dad added, “You take that Bible that Mom gave you.  You look in the Sixth Chapter of Micha and see what it says.”  And so I did.

            It said, “What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.”  

            I share this testimony with you not to claim I have some unique calling from above.  I do not.  I share it with you because I believe my father was right.  We are all called to lives of ministry.  And as lawyers that ministry involves creating enterprises, resolving conflicts, and doing justice.

            Let me close with the words of my hero, Atticus Finch:  “I am no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of courts and in the jury system.  That is no ideal to me.  It is a living, breathing reality.” 

As my father was fond of saying, “That’ll preach!”


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