This is long, but I need to get it out. This experience has been festering in my heart for 17 years now, and I have never written it all down. A chance comment in an online conversation brought the whole thing back to my mind again today.
When I left college and got married, I ended up working as a secretary because I didn’t realize that I had any marketable skills without degrees to back them up. I ended up working at a patent and trademark law firm and thereby discovered a whole field that I never know existed: Intellectual Property (IP). For those who don’t know how this is set up, patents and trademarks are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. For both, you must file an application with the PTO, an officer at the PTO reviews your application, there is often a back-and-forth process of amendments and further reviews, and then your patent or trademark is either issued or denied (and on denial, you can appeal and start the process all over again). You get a pretty folio with seals and ribbons on it, and a government-sanctioned monopoly for a specified term.
Anybody technically can file their own IP application, but like any other field of law, IP is convoluted and subject to lots of rules and regulations that can change from year to year. The unique thing about IP is that, for patents at least, the person who represents you does not have to be a full-fledged attorney. Patent Agents can do almost everything Patent Attorneys can do with regards to the filing of patents and arguing before the PTO itself, and they sit for the same PTO bar exam. However, Agents do not have to have a law degree or bar recognition in their home state. All they need to sit for the Patent Bar is either hold a technical degree (computers, engineering, etc.) or pass their state’s Fundamental of Engineering (FE) exam. I’ll admit that when I found that out, I started dreaming of sitting for the Patent Bar myself someday.
Filing patents is one of those jobs that I sometimes think was just made for Aspies. You have to do searches of the literature to see if there are any similar patents. You have to break your invention down into the tiniest steps and describe it in the minutest detail in very, very technical jargon. You have to draw diagrams and schematics. You have to find all the similarities and differences and novelties when comparing your invention to the existing “state of the art.” You have to follow very specific rules in drawing up your patent application, in filing amendments, in the language you use in communications with the PTO, in everything. From the first time I was assigned a job in an IP law firm, I was in love with the field.
The first firm I worked at taught me many things and gave me many hats. By the time I left there, I was working as a secretary, a docket manager, and a network administrator…and they balked when I asked to be paid more than just a secretary’s wages! So I moved on to the next firm, where I was only a secretary and not expected to do any more. I worked at the second firm almost until we moved back to Texas. In both places, I learned and learned as much as I could. My attorneys encouraged me, sharing legal and scientific magazine subscriptions with me, even allowing me to draft applications and amendments myself before looking at them for corrections. I loved the work, the details, the checklists, the rules and regulations, the neat and orderly file systems, the way everything had a procedure and a place.
Then I landed at Arnold, White and Durkee in 1997 in Austin, Texas. I ended up there through another employment agency. (side note: I have never had trouble getting work through employment agencies, whether temporary or permanent. I love having them as an option!) In the beginning, I was excited about working there. It was more work in the same field I had come to love, my primary attorney assignment was a wonderful and friendly guy, the network administrator (another curly long-haired lady like myself) was friendly, the office was located right on Sixth Street…everything was great!
Except for the rest of the office staff.
I suspected from the beginning that I would have issues with the office manager. She reminded me of an ex-cheerleader, and probably was, perfectly dressed and coiffed with her hair shoulder-length, curled up at the ends and held back by a ubiquitous headband. I don’t know if everything that happened there was entirely her fault, but I felt an iciness between us from the start which I know couldn’t have helped.
The first sign of trouble came over the summer. As I assume many professional organizations do, patent firms often have interns work over the summer. At IP firms, these interns may be kids in their last year of college or maybe freshly graduated, planning to sit for the Patent Bar that fall. They do grunt work around the firm while learning the ropes of the field, like any other interns. At Arnold, White, and Durkee, they got a bonus: the firm offered actual classes on passing the Patent Bar. The classes were held over lunch hours or after work, and they went through all the different laws and conventions you would need to know. They offered practice exercises and homework for the interns to take home and work on, honing their skills. Although I was very busy myself that summer, having two attorneys, two agents, and an intern as my assignments, I asked for permission to sit in on the classes, and my primary attorney told me I could.
It wasn’t two days later that the office manager called me into her office to lecture me. She felt it necessary to remind me that I was a secretary, and my job was being a secretary, and I had better not let attending these classes detract from my performance or hours as a secretary. I was taken aback. I had never in my life been discouraged from learning or studying anything! I promised that I was allowing the lunch classes to take up my entire lunch hour, not taking any extra time off, and that I was not leaving my desk early for the evening sessions. She left it at that, and I finished the classes.
But I think that’s when things started to change. I started to get complaints about the condition of my desk. It was too neat, too clean. I was always very meticulous about my desk and supplies as a secretary, keeping every file, inbox, label, everything well-stocked and in its place. That way, when things got crazy, I didn’t get slowed down looking for things. I also took some extra minutes whenever I opened a new file to clean it up, make sure everything was neatly labeled and filed in order, again to make it go faster when I was in a hurry. For the first time, these practices were openly frowned upon. I was actually called into the manager’s office and formally reprimanded. I was told that my clean desk made the other secretaries feel like I wasn’t busy enough, even though I had more assignments than any other secretary in the office. This baffled me, and although I tried, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do about this complaint.
The next thing I recall happening was even more bizarre, to me. At some point that fall, our office had to install some kind of upgrade to the network. I don’t remember what exactly it was, because I had no direct involvement with administration of the network there. All I remember is that for days our computers were unbearably slow. S-L-O-W. I couldn’t even type at speed, because the computer wouldn’t register a keystroke for half a second or more. We were all going bonkers. At one point, I was waiting for the computer to do something or other, and I commented to the secretary next to me, “Man, this is almost bad enough to make me want to use the typewriter!” To me, that was saying something, because I touch-type the backspace key and thus have always hated typewriters and the permanence of every keystroke. I can go through forever and a day plus a ream of paper trying to make a clean draft of something on a typewriter.
Some short time later, a day or a week, I was called into the manager’s office yet again. I was told that the secretary next to me, a woman who had given me rides and shared lunches with me, had made an age discrimination complaint against me for the typewriter comment. This was another formal reprimand, and I was required to seek her out and apologize. Once again, I was left bewildered, although I followed the instructions.
Something else that happened came about because of the unique patents that we worked on. We did a lot of work on genetic modifications. The interesting thing about these patents is that they include actual DNA sequences. Also, a separate patent has to be filed for every possible DNA sequence being patented. These patents would end up coming through in huge piles, 20 or even 40 at a time. As a secretary, when these patents came through my hands, I was responsible for checking the formatting of the application documents before sending them on to the PTO. Every single one had to be checked to make sure there were two carriage returns between paragraphs, two spaces after every period (but nowhere else!), tabs or spaces in the appropriate places, all those little details. Each one could be 60 pages long, taking an hour or more to completely proofread.
Being a sometime programmer, I saw a shortcut for this. I took a few hours one day and wrote a macro that would go through a patent file and check it for all these little layout rules. When I was done, I had a program that would do in 5 minutes what I and other secretaries had been spending hours and hours doing. Feeling pretty impressed and excited, I took my macro to the office manager so that it could be officially shared with the firm.
Whereupon I was (yet again!) formally reprimanded for doing things that were outside my job description and sent away. To the best of my knowledge, that macro never was shared with the other secretaries who could have used it.
The last straw at this firm came in December. That day rolled around that everybody in the law firm looks forward to: Bonus Day! One of the mail crew came through the office leaving pretty red envelopes on everybody’s desk. Well, almost everybody’s desk. I didn’t get one. Of course nobody is supposed to talk about bonuses, ever, but I managed to find out that those pretty red envelopes were the Christmas bonuses for the year. I waited a day or two, and when I still didn’t get one, I went to see the manager. She confirmed that yes, those were the bonuses, and no, I wasn’t going to get one. Further questioning revealed that I was the only person in this multi-city mega IP law firm that wasn’t getting a Christmas bonus, even though my attorney assignments had never expressed anything but praise for my performance.
I turned in my resignation that same day.
I have never again worked in an office full-time. The most I’ve done is floating in and out as a temp, even sometimes as a temp programmer. I don’t know if I ever will be able to handle working in an office again. Just writing this story out again, telling the whole thing in detail instead of just punchline snippets, has left me in a near panic, reliving those feelings. I still don’t understand what happened there. It felt like everything I did was met with disapproval and rejection. I have to wonder what effect it has had on my outlook in general. I have never since actually completed any course of study anywhere. No degrees, no certifications. I haven’t really held any permanent jobs, either, just various temp jobs and bits of contract programming that I did out of my home. How much of that is a fear of getting to that point of completion or advancement and then being smacked back down into “my place”?