“Welcome to the office!” he exclaimed with genuine excitement in his voice. But this same person, along with each of the other six attorneys who interviewed me ten days ago, had told me that there would likely soon be cuts for the first time in years. People would probably have to be let go, and being the last one in, I would be the first one out. This could happen as early as April. I bought a ticket for a sinking ship.
My first day. It’s a Monday, the last Monday in January. I leave the house at about 7:45. The sky is grey and there’s snow and ice on the ground. Certainly, it’s cold. The wind stings any uncovered skin. It’s the kind of day where it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night, because the sun ain’t coming out regardless.
I drive downtown via the highway and park in a spot that is marked for 30 minutes max, but I know from experience that they never ticket there. I’d park closer or in a lot, but the County doesn’t cover employee parking. So, I take advantage of this freebie rather than pay $3.50-6.00 every day. It’s about a ten minute walk from there.
I have my best suit on, a Jos. A. Bank charcoal grey. It’s the only suit I have that isn’t starting to fray a bit. I like this suit. I feel professional in this suit. I wore it once for every multi-day trial I did in Tucson. It’s the best I have to offer my new employer. I carry with me my Coach file bag that my parents gave me as a graduation present two and a half years earlier. It’s starting to look worn and the strap is about to break at the clip. There’s nothing in it save for a pen or two and a legal pad. This is the Milwaukee DA’s office latest hire in all his glory.
I’m nervous. I have serious trepidations. What if this isn’t going to work out? What if the judges all have unbearable god-complexes? What if I don’t like my co-workers? What if I made a huge mistake by jumping back into prosecution? What if the move was God’s way of getting me out of that line of work, and here I was spitting at His grand plan by sprinting right back into it? It’s the first day of summer camp, and I don’t want to go!
Come on, get over it. What a whiney tool. It’ll be fine.
There’s only one entrance I can use right now, in the basement of the garage. I get in the security line with a handful of civilians. It takes about five minutes to move through. I don’t know anything about the people I’m standing and waiting with, but I can’t help but figure that at least some of them are criminals. Why else would they be coming to the DA’s building at 8 am?
I go through security as a civilian since I don’t have my credentials yet. I wait in line to put all my effects into a bin and walk through a metal detector and then get wanded when the detector buzzes as I pass through. Probably my shoes. It was always my shoes. The wand goes up and down my body. Yep, the shoes.
I watch several ADAs stroll right past this line with just a quick flash of their badge. This is one of the perks that you don’t realize how much you love until you don’t have it. The world stands and waits to be frisked while you step on by without breaking pace. But I don’t have an ID badge yet, so belt off, pockets emptied, prepare to do the turn.
I wonder if I’ll work closely with any of those passing ADA’s. Will they be easy to work with? Funny? Do they like to chat about sports and music?
I get in the elevator and head to the sixth floor, the main home of the DA’s office. I arrive in the office about ten minutes early, as I’m prone to do. I let the lady at the desk know that I’m there and she calls for the man who is to train me. The waiting area is old. It looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 50s or maybe 40s. There’s a long bench if you want to sit. It’s old and it’s hard wood. It’s not comfy, so I stand. On the wall there are photos of every DA in Milwaukee’s history. I read their names to pass the time. A defense attorney comes in to pick up disclosure for a case. I try to stand like a professional as I continue to read the names in case he happens to look over and wonder whether I’m a lawyer or just some kid nobody.
About 15 minutes later, out comes my trainer, a veteran who’s worked in the office for 27 years. He was the first person I met during the interview process. I could tell that he’s good-natured, but grizzled. This job is what he does and what he does well, but it’s clearly gotten to him a few times over the years. His sighs betrayed him during the interview. He’s ready to retire.
He greats me warmly with a good handshake. He introduces me to the secretaries up front and then takes me down the hall. My God, this place is old. The carpeting is old. The walls are old. The desks are old. The doors are old. It doesn’t feel classic. It feels old. He introduces me to a few more people: the file clerks, the IT guys.
Then he stops introducing me to people. He talks to people about work as we’re walking by without even mentioning who I am. I just stand there. It’s awkward. This happens more than once. I guess they’re used to new faces, because they don’t enquire about the new guy.
He leads me into the DA’s office (as in, the actual DA). It’s time for me to be sworn in. I like the DA a lot. He’s pretty young for having such a powerful position; I peg him in the 44-46 range. He comes across as extremely genuine. He’s a guy you’d love to have as a neighbor. He’ll talk to you about your likes and his likes. He’s not trying to sell you anything. He’s not trying to earn your vote with every encounter. He’s a political office-holder, but he isn’t a politician. He’s a prosecutor. He’s a good guy. He might be the best boss I’ve ever had.
I get sworn in by repeating a few lines with my right hand raised. I actually fudge a line a little but keep going. I finish with “So help me, God” and I get a great handshake, a warm smile, and a hearty “Welcome to the office!”
Welcome to the office . . .
I tried not to think about the elephant in the room. I enjoy the moment the best I can. At that moment, I’m a prosecutor again. I’m a professional. I have a job. I have a future.
Now, it’s training time. My trainer takes me over into their computer lab. It’s another old room with four computers set up in a line against the wall. These are old computers and they run slow. On these, he’s to show me their company computer system in all its complexities. He gives me my system login name. It’s my last name with first initial.
They misspelled my last name.
“What? Really? How is it supposed to be spelled? Oh geez. I’ll give a call to the computer guys to get that fixed.” He does call them. They aren’t around. For the foreseeable future, I have a new spelling to my last name.
We spend the rest of the morning on the computer. I learn how to mark sick days, vacation days, personal days, yada yada yada. It’s far from a simple system. This is nothing I’m going to get down until I have to actually use it. I just want to get through this painfully dull system training so I can get on to forgetting about it. I’ll just ask someone in a few months when I want to take a vacation day. Plus, I never call in sick, so no worries there.
We also go over the office policies. I’m given this huge packet of policies and the guy proceeds to read them to me aloud verbatim. It’s excruciatingly boring. I can clearly read this on my own time. Besides, I already know I can pretty much sum it all up already: Don’t be an unethical dick. Thank you. This lasts until lunch.
He lets me go for lunch at 11:30. He tells me to meet back up with him at 1:30. Two hours of nothing. I didn’t bring anything because I wasn’t sure if I’d have a place to store it. I buy a sandwich in the cafeteria in the basement of the courthouse, grab a seat at an empty table, and stare out the window into the alley as I eat. There’s nothing to see, just the outside.
With nothing to do, I pull out my legal pad and start writing. I write the beginning of a screenplay for a scene in a movie idea I’ve had floating around. It’s a take on the Death Wish storyline: personal tragedy leads to distorted perceptions of justice. I write for about an hour and a half, then I head back up to the 6th floor waiting room.
The afternoon follows the same script as the morning. I’m at a computer and the old grump is showing me how to use it. I’m barely paying attention. He barely cares. Three more hours of this, just me, him, and these old computers.
I ask him about getting my ID badge. He says the woman, the one woman, who handles that is out and she won’t be back for at least a week if not more. I guess I’ll have to do the morning security dance for a while longer.
I start having really bad thoughts. It’s been almost a whole day, and all my fears and concerns about working here haven’t been erased yet! I start to fantasize about leaping out the window and running to freedom. Shit. Seriously, what if I just stood up, said “You know, I think I made a mistake here,” and walked out?
Such a drama queen. Of course, I do nothing of the sort. It’s just the first day of summer camp, after all. In a few weeks, I’m not going to want to go home, so the pattern goes.
He lets me go at 5:0o. I walk back to the car, and it’s already getting pretty dark out. On the way home I swing by to pick up my wife from school. She is the entirety of my support system in Milwaukee. She’s been supportive of me in whatever I’ve tried. She knows that I gave up a lot to come to Wisconsin, and she wanted so bad for me to find success here and be happy. A week earlier, she had tears of joy and relief in her eyes when I told her I got the job.
She asks me how the day went. I can only say, “I don’t know.” I was serious. It wasn’t a good first day. I didn’t meet anyone I’ll be working closely with. I didn’t even get to see where my office is going to be. I don’t know where I’ll be working or what I’ll be working on. It was bad, but it was just a first day. We go home, eat some dinner, watch some TV, and relax.
I get a voicemail from my mother. She, too, was concerned about my happiness in Milwaukee. She, too, was ecstatic when I got this job. Right after I told her, she posted the news on Facebook. I think she’s only updated her status three times in the years she’s been on Facebook.
The voicemail is pure anticipation. She’s giddy and wants to know how the first day went. I don’t return the call. I’m not ready to talk about the job with anyone yet.
I try to stay positive. Starting tomorrow, hopefully we’ll surely quit with this menial computer shit and move on to training about Wisconsin law and procedure. I’ll meet my fellow ADAs. I’ll shadow one or more of them for a while. I’ll set up my office. I’ll meet the judges. I’ll ease into handling a courtroom. Within a month, I’ll be a seasoned veteran again. I’ll be comfortable with my job, and I’ll be pulling in a solid paycheck. Life will surely be good.
I go to bed that night, and I sleep. I sleep like I had slept every other night, fine. I sleep all the way through the night. It will be the last good night’s sleep I’ll have for weeks.
Day Two. I put on my second best suit, a Men’s Warehouse navy blue pinstripe. I park in the same place and make the same walk. I get in the security line with what might as well be the same group of criminals, and I do the security dance. I go to the same waiting area and wait some more. I don’t have an ID badge so I can’t just walk in, and I don’t have an office so I wouldn’t have any place to go if I could. I read the names of the past DAs again. I wait for about ten minutes.
My trainer comes out and takes me back to that damn computer lab. More computer training! Wow. My name is still wrong for my login. It will fortunately be fixed by the end of the day. They get my name down. At least that problem is over with.
I learn about charging a case and putting it into the system. It’s another unnecessarily complex system. I’m certainly not going to get it now. How about I team up with another attorney who is currently charging cases and watch and learn from him/her and maybe do one or two myself with him/her watching? How about no.
I enter a fake case into the system. In doing so, I get a look at their files. They are disgustingly disorganized. Papers just tossed in with no order. It’s the same whether it’s a felony or misdemeanor file. I am not used to this. It just doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t somebody have come along by now and said, “Hey, we need to have more organized files around here”?
Computer training lasts all morning again. I welcome the lunch break like a dying man welcomes a paramedic. I get another sandwich, find an empty table, and let the negativity consume me. I think for sure I made a mistake. I shouldn’t be here. They’re going to fire me in three months anyway. What’s the point?
I think about it logically and try to mentally slap myself in the face. Snap out of it! You’re such a baby! So what if this is boring! So what if the place is old and disorganized! You’re going to prosecute again! It’s what you do!
The negativity doesn’t go away, though. I start to write again. I start another movie scene, but I preface it with a cry to the gods for help. I beg the universe to let this writing be a ticket out of this path that I’m on. Let me write a best-selling novel. Let me write an award-winning screenplay. Let me write a hit song. Just let me go. I’m feeling desperate.
After lunch, my trainer shows me around the 8th floor, where many ADA offices are. He introduces me to a few of them and the legal secretaries. We walk by an empty office. He stops, and looks in. I look in, too. There’s a desk from the 60s, a wooden chair from the 40s, a small shelf, and a phone. That’s it.
“Well, I guess you can take this office.”
Wait, that’s it? There wasn’t an office ready for me, so you “guess” I can take this one? “There’s not much left in here. All the others must have gotten to it. That’s usually how it goes: when an office clears up, people scrounge for the stuff inside it.” HUH?
He checks the phone. “Nope, that doesn’t work.” Then what is it doing here? “I’ll give a call to the computer guys about getting you a computer in here.” So until then, I do . . . what? Stack matches?
I start to wonder if the office is this disorganized for every new hire, or if it’s just me. It seems at this point like they told me I had the job, and then completely forgot about it until I showed up.
He takes me down a few flights to the charging offices. The ADAs give up their courtrooms and regular offices for a week every five weeks and work solely as case charges in specialty case-charging offices. I follow him as he talks to a few more people, forgetting to introduce me some more.
He takes me into an office where four or five ADAs are hanging out talking. He starts up a conversation with the oldest of the group; a woman of about 50. They’re chatting about whatever, and she starts swearing. She uses profanities like they were commas. I’m just standing there listening. Nobody even acknowledges I’m in the room.
Finally, he’s done talking and walks out. I start to follow. I hear from the room, “Wait, why is the new guy following him still. He’s supposed to stay here, right?”
I stop in the middle of the hall. My trainer continues to walk away. He continues down the hall, turns through a door, and he’s gone. A day and a half of computer-system tutelage and policy-manual-reading later, he’s done. Nothing on Wisconsin law and procedure. No observations. No oversight.
I’m supposedly ready to work now.
Training is over.