Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Family by Chance

Being a genealogist, I think a lot about family connections. Constantly. But earlier this week I got to thinking about family relations without the blood connection. Obviously, this was due to attending the funeral of a man I worked with many years ago. Since the service on Monday morning, I've found myself thinking a lot about the people who have come and gone in my 30 years with the law firm.

It's not that common to work such a long stretch of time in the same place. At least not these days. Young people these days jump from job to job with little thought of building longevity with a company. Of course companies don't last like they used to and they don't cultivate the loyalty in their employees the way they used to, so I guess it's understandable that employees don't go into a job expecting to stay forever.

I didn't either way back in 1976. I had in mind to work a couple of years to get something to put on my resume and then move on. I took the position of secretary to a young attorney in a five attorney lawfirm a few blocks from the Capitol. In addition to the attorneys, we had an office manager and his assistant, a staff supervisor, and about 10 of us clerical peons.

The supervisor and four of us "girls" shared one large room and three other "girls" worked in the next room. In the copy room were a couple of data entry clerks, in the back room were a couple of calculation clerks, and a file clerk flitted about the whole building.

Like any other family, we didn't necessarily like each other, but we were bound together by a sense of common purpose. We all knew every client and we all cheered the others' accomplishments and commiserated over the disappointments. If one of us fell behind on a project, the rest of us would drop everything and pitch in and get the job done. We all worked together; we knew what each of us was working on; we pulled together for the common cause. We both feared and poked fun at the top boss when he wasn't around, sort of the same way you would a domineering father. We knew each other's husbands and boyfriends, kids and grandkids. We were a family. Adopted, all of us, but a family nonetheless. We stood by each other and by the company.

You don't get that kind of work environment anymore. The same firm now has 10 attorneys and about 100 clerical staff sprinkled around the state. Nowadays folks can come on board and be there two months before you realize there's a new body in the building. Each attorney operates his own little world with his own staff and they work exclusively with their own handful of clients with little awareness of what's going on in the other parts of the firm. Flex time has created a constant in and out of employees on a wide ranging schedule and it's entirely possible to go days without seeing your co-workers if your schedules get out of sync. There are small groups of workers who band together in friendship, but not the company wide sense of family that I had the fortune to experience in those days long ago.

There are only a handful of people who have been with the firm as long as I have. When I started I was the wet-behind-the-ears baby of the firm. I'm now at the other end of the spectrum. Seen it all, done it all, know which closets the skeletons are stored in, and forgotten more than the youngsters will ever know. I've learned not to get too attached to anyone in the firm, because the people come and go so quickly. So much has changed, in fact, that I no longer have a sense of family in the workplace. It's the office and I'm no longer emotionally attached to it.

Except for those people who were there in those early days. I still consider Shelly and Clyde and Pris and Laird and Gil and Liz as part of my family. We met each other in those days when you could take time to get to know and care about each other while you worked together. There are others in the office I consider my friends, but there are those few that share my memories of a different time and place. And that common bond is almost as strong as blood.

There was a time not so long ago when it was not unusual to spend your entire work life with one company. Now it's downright odd. I have a lot of conflicting feelings as I approach that 30 year mark on June 14th. I feel like I'm one of the last doddering members of a family line that is coming to an end. Sometimes I wonder if anyone else mourns its passing.


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