|Diane Patrick is a freelance editor and
writer who is in the business of helping
publishers, editors, agents, academics,
legal professionals, entertainers, and
business owners get their words out.
The Boss From Heaven
by Diane Patrick
Even though I was a complete novice, he saw something in me... so
he tossed me a ball I'd never played with and let me run with it
anyway. Did that change my life? YOU decide...
Culture Shock: From The Projects to The Skyscrapers
In 1976, I had a college degree in my pocket, an idealistic heart beating in my chest, and no clear career plans
except that I wanted to help the underprivileged. On a tip from a fellow student’s mother, I volunteered to work in
a Legal Aid office in the South Bronx, and was given the title of “paralegal,” a brand new term in the legal world.
After six months helping poor people with their consumer problems and divorces, Legal Aid hired me full time.
Four years later, in 1981, a friend hired me to work as a paralegal in his law firm in midtown Manhattan. So now,
I was working in a huge skyscraper on 57th Street, a really fancy part of town.
For someone so dedicated to helping the downtrodden, I took to the luxury environment like a duck to water. I
quickly got used to the comfort and abundance: antique furniture pieces, lamps, and draperies in the partner’s
offices. And I enjoyed the plush carpeting throughout the offices and halls, soft lighting, good-quality supplies,
unlimited telephone calls and photocopying privileges, vouchers for private car services for essential work-
related travel or for those who worked late.
This being decades before “casual Fridays,” our firm’s dress code was simple: You Better Look Damn Good. I
loved coming to work for the pure pleasure of seeing, on both clients and staff, the best suits, coats and socks,
the smoothest silk ties and scarves, the most stylish shoes, the finest leather briefcases and handbags, the
sharpest haircuts, the most tasteful jewelry. And yes, every day I looked just as Damn Good as the rest of them,
with my two-piece dresses, slingback pumps, sheer hose, accessories, and stylish hair.
The air was full of the electricity of deal-making, no-nonsense efficiency, and time being of the essence. The firm’
s attorneys worked hard and long to score the billable hours necessary to make partner, or at least to make a
dent in the workload. And did I mention that this was before computers, Federal Express, and cell phones? In
fact, I remember when we first got fax machines–our mouths hung open at the possibilities! So yes, we used
electric typewriters and copy machines and worked our butts off, and loved it. We paralegals helped to make the
attorneys look good, doing the real work, from research to drafting contracts, correspondence, and pleadings,
to fielding and handling client contact. Of course, secretaries and word processors did the real real work.
But my new job was different in another way, too. Instead of working directly with clients, as I had at Legal Aid, I
was working with mountains of paper, surrounded by endless legal documents in preparation for a huge trial. It
wasn’t long before I became bored out of my mind. What had I gotten myself into? Had I sold out just to work in
Condominiums vs. Condoms
Just when I thought I couldn’t take it for another second, one morning when I arrived at work I was told that the
trial was getting ready to start. Which meant that all the documents were being shipped to the trial venue–in
California! Did I want to go with the trial team, or stay at the firm and help out (or “float,” as they called it) in
other departments? Since I’d had my fill of papers, was starved for client contact, and had no interest in going to
California just to spend more time with paperwork, it was an easy choice. I would stay and find out what the rest
of the law firm was like. Secretly, I thought, maybe I’d even get to meet some of those fancy clients.
The first department they sent me to was the real estate department, which was the last department I would
have chosen to even go near. To be honest, I didn’t even know what “real estate” meant, didn't know a
condominium from a condom. But I reported to Gary Strauss*, the associate attorney who ran the department.
Gary was a young single Jewish guy, only a couple of years older than I. Always in motion, he was about six feet
tall, medium build, with hair that he seemed to comb only with his fingers and a face that always seemed to need
a shave. When you first met him Gary seemed harried, absent-minded and preoccupied, and talked so fast that
you had to ask him to repeat himself. In his small office with a view of Trump Tower–which was then under
construction–Gary’s desk, bookcase and credenza were piled high with papers, folders and memorabilia from
his favorite sport, which was hockey.
But as I was to soon learn, it was organized chaos; Gary could find anything in a second. And when he asked
you to do something, he meant yesterday. I’d never met a character like Gary; yet, there was something about
him that I liked and respected. Maybe it was that he seemed to take himself less seriously than those attorneys I’
d met in the litigation department, and even to enjoy himself and his work. In fact, he had an irreverent exterior
beneath which lay a jokester. For example, on someone’s birthday, he would pick up the cards they’d receive,
as if to look at them–and then he would sign below the existing signature, “& Gary.” Or if someone told him they
met someone that they were dating, he’d say, “So what’s the name of his seeing-eye dog?” Yet, make no
mistake: he was efficient, result-oriented, and his clients seemed to respect him very much. That refreshing
combination appealed to me, so I decided to respect him too.
That first day, he gave me the task of labeling a stack of blank file folders with apartment numbers for a building
he represented. Hmph, I thought. Look at me, a college grad with solid paralegal experience, doing this menial
task! But wasn’t I was in a nice private office instead of in a cubicle? And weren’t there two other fun people–
Fred, Gary’s paralegal, and Susan, their secretary–in the office with me? And didn’t Fred and Susan have a
radio on all day, tuned to a classic rock station? Who else in the firm could listen to Santana, Creedence
Clearwater Revival, and The Eagles all day? So I decided to just enjoy it all.
A few days later, Gary called me into his office. My assignment must be over, I thought, and he wants to say
thanks and goodbye. So I was pretty surprised when he handed me a file and said in that mile-a-minute rhythm:
“Here’s the file on our client Perry Manley. He’s selling his condominium unit at 20 East 35th Street, and he’s
closing in two weeks. At the closing he’ll be paying off his mortgage on the condo, so I want you to send a letter
to his bank requesting a payoff letter with all the amounts he owes on that mortgage.”
Did he just say he wanted me to write an official letter, on law firm letterhead, to a bank, signed by my little
invisible insignificant self? Wow. How did he know that I loved to write letters? Or was he just desperate for the
help? I was a little intimidated at writing such a letter, especially since it was going to be on firm letterhead. I took
that very seriously, and so I wanted to make sure I said the right thing.
I guess Gary saw the puzzlement on my face, because he added, “There’s a letter in the Andrea Carver file that
you can use as a model.” And he picked up the phone to make a call, indicating the conversation was over and
that I was on my own.
Wow, I thought. This guy is trusting me to do something really important. I drafted the letter, showed it to Gary,
and after he marked it up a little, approved it for sending under my signature. About a week later, he asked me
for the payoff letter. I knew exactly what he meant. I was on it. And I had an answer.
“They didn’t come,” I said, proud of my efficient knowledge of the status.
I was expecting him to thank me for being able to answer his question quickly and accurately. But there was
silence. Gary was looking at me with the utmost exasperation in his eyes.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well, the bank hasn’t responded to my letter yet.”
And then Gary Strauss uttered a sentence that changed my life.
“That’s no excuse,” he said. “You have to call the bank and follow up.”
I was crushed. I had screwed up. I thought I’d won his approval by doing the task he’d asked me to do–when in
his mind, I’d only done HALF of it. Now I was beginning to see why he was respected. So I got on the phone and
redeemed myself by making sure the statements got to me several hours later.
But more than that, I learned something about business that I use to this very day: you never, ever leave things
up to the other party. You MUST follow up. That is the difference between doing something and getting
A Whole New World
A few days later, I got off the elevator, walked through the glass doors, and could instantly feel a buzz of activity
on our floor. There were a lot of people milling around between our office and the boardroom across the hall,
and I noticed Gary and Fred wearing nice suits and ties, looking official, and confidently answering every
question anyone asked. Something big and serious was going on, yet there was a positive vibe underneath it all.
It wasn’t long before I learned that it was a real estate closing. Way too important and official for me to get
involved in, especially as I was only there temporarily. So I returned to my folders.
The next day, there was more hubbub: another closing. Around 11 AM, Gary came into the office and
approached my desk. I looked up at him, once again expecting him to tell me that my assignment there was
“I want you to go and sit in on the closing,” he said.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I’d asked him the stupidest question on earth. “Go into the boardroom, take a seat, and
just watch what goes on.”
I was stunned. Okay, I thought, I hadn’t gone to college for nothing; I can handle going into a room and sitting
down. Gary must have a reason for sending me to do that. Plus, I loved that boardroom, because once or twice I
had sneaked in there when it was empty. It was about sixty feet long by twelve feet wide, with a thick, solid
wooden swinging door at each end. Although the room was windowless, soft recessed lighting made it cozy. A
rectangular polished conference table–made of the same thick wood as the doors–spanned the length of the
room and was surrounded by about thirty high-backed, red leather armchairs. On the wall behind the head of
the table was a huge portrait of one of the firm’s founding partners; the opposite wall was all glass, and looked
out onto the reception area when the vertical blinds were not drawn. And finally, along the long wall in the room
was a built-in console table with a telephone and a coffee station; next to it was a small private telephone booth.
It was a lovely space, and I felt very special and important being in it. When I walked into the closing carrying my
legal pad and pen and sat down in one of those red leather chairs, I felt that my life was going to change in an
After a few weeks of letting me sit in on the closings and giving me some training in the closing process, Gary
began giving me responsibilities a little at a time, and I felt honored that he would trust me with them. He let me
prepare some of the documents, talk to the attorneys, brokers, bankers and title closers involved with the
various transactions, organize the papers, and coordinate the schedules. Fred, Susan and I became a strong,
tight team, and we had a saying that used to crack us–but only us–up: “We’re young, we’re in real estate, and
we know how to talk to people!”
In time, he let me do closings on my own, both in and out of the office. Ultimately, that temporary assignment in
the real estate department turned into my specialty, my expertise, and I ended up staying with Gary for six years,
appearing on the firm’s behalf at a total of three thousand co-op and condominium closings.
And it was all because Gary Strauss was open-minded enough to let me do something even I didn’t know I
wanted to do.
Postscript: Where Are They Now?
Twenty-five years later, I have changed careers to become a journalist and author. Gary became a partner in
the firm we worked in, then a few years later went out on his own; he is now a partner in his own firm. As a
testament to his expertise, he still has many of the same clients he had when I was with him. But most
importantly, he and I still talk on the phone, occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and he hasn’t really changed
all that much.
I called him to make a date for him to read and approve this essay before I posted it. When he took me to dinner
and read it, watching him read it was just like old times.
I know, I'm just a big mush.
So... sue me!
* Yes, that's his real name, and yes, he said I could use it. All the other names are fictitious.
Copyright © Diane Patrick 2008-2013.