One Long Road: Forty Years Working for The Same Attorney

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01Jan2008

One Long Road: Forty Years Working for The Same Attorney

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one long road togetherWhen legal secretary Lorrie Orchard and San Francisco lawyer John Browne, III, first started working together, court hours ran from 10 a.m. to noon, and 2 to 4 p.m. Three-martini lunches were the vogue.

“During the days of the long lunches, Lorrie was smart enough to know that if any decisions had to be made or anything needed to be signed, that she damn well make sure these things got done before lunch,” recalled Browne, now 69. “Nowadays, I grab a quick salad for lunch and am lucky to lunch out once a week.”

That’s one difference between 1967 and 2007. But the two have resisted other changes that have swept the profession: She still takes shorthand. He still, on occasion, dictates to her directly rather than to a machine. And they are still together.

Theirs is a partnership that has spanned four decades — and one that stands in stark contrast to the modern law practice. These days, secretaries typically work for three or four lawyers. And both attorneys and staff hop from firm to firm with greater frequency than in the past.

“It’s rare to find someone who sticks with one person,” said Lori Hunt, a lawyer with Napa-based Gaw Van Male and president of the Bay Area Legal Secretaries Forum.

Browne and Orchard have gone through their share of firms, but they spent between six and 12 years at each stop, and they did it together. Now practicing at Browne’s San Francisco law office, the two celebrated 40 years as a professional team in September.

Ties That Bind (For Now)

Shari O’Brien knows how tough it is today to map out a legal secretary’s career with one law firm, much less one lawyer.

O’Brien worked as a legal secretary for a partner at Frandzel & Share in San Francisco for 15 years, and that’s also where she met bankruptcy partner David Wiseblood. She worked with him for two or three years, but the legal industry was changing.

O’Brien said she would have stayed for the duration of her career at Frandzel had the firm not dissolved after the founding partner died. “I had no plans to leave,” she said. “I only left because I had to.”

In 1999, O’Brien and Wiseblood moved to Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, where she worked for him and one other lawyer. But she said that firm didn’t feel like the right fit. She spent only six weeks there.

Four years and a few firms later, Wiseblood called her at Hancock, Rothert & Bunshoft and asked her to join him at San Francisco’s 13-lawyer Berg & Parker.

“I really liked Hancock, but the associate who recruited me there was leaving on maternity,” O’Brien said, and merger possibilities were brewing. “I decided to take what I thought was a sure thing,” she said. “And I really liked working with David.”

The two stuck together when Berg & Parker merged into Preston Gates & Ellis, and again after that firm’s mega merger with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham. In July, O’Brien and Wiseblood decamped to Seyfarth Shaw, where she still works for him, in addition to two associates.

“When I first started out in the business, people stayed with their attorneys for a long time,” O’Brien said. “Now with all the mergers — it’s not like that anymore.”

All told, the two have worked together for about eight years.

They’ve lasted so long, at least in part, because Wiseblood is “very considerate,” O’Brien said, doesn’t micro-manage, and tries to not ask her to work overtime.

O’Brien added that she’d love to say that this time is for keeps, but today you just never know.

“I would like to stay with David, that would be my preference,” she said. “But it’s hard to commit to a place when you don’t know what it’s going to look like a year from now.”

The Fork in the Road

Orchard was a spunky 25-year-old when she landed her first legal secretary job at Field, DeGoff & Rieman back in the 1960s. She started as a floater, and was soon assigned to Browne, who was an associate at the time.

When Browne decided to leave about a year later, Orchard found herself at a crossroads. Called into the office of a name partner and unaware that Browne had given his notice already, she recalls getting herself abruptly fired for wavering in her loyalties to the firm.

Distraught, Orchard called the courthouse where Browne was in the middle of his first trial. “I thought one of my parents had croaked,” Browne recalled.

When he heard what happened, he offered Orchard a job.

Though Orchard says her firm did a turnabout and offered her more pay to stay, in her mind, the deal was done. “Jack seemed like somebody I could rely on,” Orchard said. “What he says, he means. He’s never cut a corner.”

For his part, Browne says Orchard is like his right hand — a people-person, “censor,” and his “best critic” rolled into one.

“I rely on her for everything except the actual practice of law,” he said. She’s not bashful, he noted, about marking a draft with bold caps and five question marks — “meaning she is questioning my facts or, more importantly, my judgment.” More often than not, he ends up rethinking it.

Though Browne and Orchard have had more stability than the average lawyer and secretary today, the years have not passed without ups and downs for them, either.

Even Orchard admits that she had, on occasion, thought about leaving.

Under stress, people lash out at those closest to them, she said. “You’re the sounding board and the whipping post.”

Over the years, she learned to not take it too personally. And because a legal secretary’s worst nightmare is to be used as a scapegoat without apology, she said, it’s helped a great deal that when Browne did blow his top, “he always apologized.”

Orchard said she’s watched friends in the profession move from job to job, thinking it would be better elsewhere. “They’re looking for the perfect job — but it’s not there.”

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2007 issue of The Recorder’s Legal Pro. © 2008 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. Further duplication is prohibited. For more information, contact Paula Ryplewski at (415) 749-5410 or visit www.callaw.com.

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