Can’t Read the Writing on the Wall

I’m going blind reading my boss’ chicken scratch writing.  He’s old school, so he likes to markup my briefs and motions with a red felt pen.  Fine.  I’m not afraid of a little red ink.  And I’m not afraid of having to get high-powered trifocals after straining to make out his words.  But what I am afraid of is asking him for clarification.

The first time I asked him, you would’ve thought that I had burned down his house and run away with his teenage daughter.

He shut the door to his office (thank God) and proceeded to read off all of his notes (all 93 of them) in an increasingly annoyed tone.  By the time he got to the end, I thought he was going to burst a capillary or something.  But he just looked at me, angered—as if I had somehow challenged him.

“I trust that, as I did not see you taking notes, you’ve committed this to memory?”

With that, he escorted me out of his office, and I spent the entire night at the office trying to re-decipher his chicken scratch.  Seriously, the guy’s writing is so bad he should have been a doctor.

After that, I think he tried to make his writing even less intelligible.  I mean, it’s really terrible.  He has grinded down every felt-tip pen he uses into a magic marker, and it always smudges, which makes it even harder to read.

I tried asking his secretary for help, and she made some crack about how she stopped trying to read his writing years ago.  Nobody can read this guy’s writing.  His penmanship is a running joke in our office, and I’ve even talked to associates in other cities who have heard about his bad writing and short temper.  How the hell did he ever make partner?

Eventually, anytime he wrote a handwritten note to anyone, people came to me to confirm their analysis.  And, after months of excruciating practice, I thought I had gotten pretty good making sense of his mess.  (G’s, j’s, P’s, q’s and y’s look identical; e’s, h’s, l’s and t’s are all the same; m’s and n’s always have four humps; vowels other than e’s are most definable and used as primary context clues.) But when it was impossible, it was always my job to put my head in the lion’s mouth.  And since he’s my boss, when a colleague didn’t understand something he’d written, I’d go ask.  And I pretty much got bitch-slapped on a regular basis.

A few weeks ago, I asked him for clarification on something.  He was in a rush and barked at me to figure it out.  Then he walked away.  I did the best I could, but I got it wrong.

The word didn’t change anything significant, but I guess it allowed opposing counsel to throw a little egg on my boss’ face.

That was the day he came back to the office and tore me a new one.  It was heard throughout the hall when he threatened that my next mistake would get me fired.  For two hours after he left my office, no one on the entire floor uttered a word.

He now oversees everything I do now like a child.  He even had his secretary give me a file full of handwritten notes that she said he wanted me to do “because [I] need the practice.”

I suppose the good part is that no one burdens me anymore when they have a problem with his writing, but at the same time, I’ve quickly lost any respect amongst my co-workers.  Bottom line: Ever word—nay, every letter—counts, and even the smallest mistakes can get you canned.

  • KateLaw

    Ouch.. that sounds like a miserable boss and just a miserable place to work.  I hope, for your sake, you can make it out of there eventually and find employment where you’re treated with respect.  Im just wondering if you could perhaps try to build up some kind of relationship with this guy to help ease the tension..?  I worked with a very difficult attorney who barked at everyone.  I was able to figure out that he loved LSU and proceeded to tell him everything and anything about my visits to Baton Rouge.  He ended up being alot more pleasant to me than anyone else and almost never lost his temper.  This may be a option worth attempting with your boss.

  • BL1Y

    If he’s got a reputation for awful writing and a short temper, it might be hard for him to convince the other partners that you should be fired.  But even if he can’t get rid of you, you should be looking to get rid of him.  Start looking for assignments you can take from other partners, and start looking for jobs at other firms (not that there are any, I’ve checked).

  • Craig

    This does not really make sense.  You would ask your boss for clarification when he sent a note to other people that had nothing to do with you?  Why?  Wouldn’t your boss think that was a bit odd?  And if you admittedly can’t read his hand writing, why would people come to you to decipher it?

  • rad

    ahhh, craig, because most people are too pussy to ever go ask a partner anything. so why not go to the guy below him and get your answer that way? it’s not right, but it’s the truth. if people didn’t act like such pansies in law firms, everything would run much smoother.

  • BL1Y

    Rad: You’re saying it makes sense to go this guy, but Craig is asking why this guy would go to the boss and get yelled at instead of just passing the note right back to the other attorney.

  • Craig

    Exactly what BL1Y said.  If he was “man” enough to constantly ask his boss for clarification, why wasn’t he “man” enough to tell the other attorney to find out for himself.  Only an idiot would volunteer to put himself in the line of fire when it has nothing to do with them.  Even the secretary managed to tell this guy to f off and figure it out himself.  Something just seems off to me.

  • BL1Y

    At least this guy took the common sense steps of asking the secretary if she could help and asking the partner to translate.  Better than most of the people who write in.

  • Craig

    Very true, BL1Y.  Usually these people claim they have tried everything under the sun and are on the verge of an old fashioned mass murder suicide, ready to go Columbine on everybody in the firm. Yet they never tried the direct, obvious solution of just asking the partner/colleague to please stop or for them to explain further.  This guy does the opposite.  He creates and volunteers to put himself in these awkward partner, underling exchanges, seemingly just so he had a better story to tell.

  • Er, no.

    Be smart, figure out a way to protect yourself.  Work for others.  Get on his good side.  Or if you can’t do anything else, hire a P.I. and get some dirt on him.  Otherwise, you’re already on a countdown for unemployment.

  • robert smith

    God you’re lazy.  Are all new associates like you? 
    Do what I did and what people encourage me to do now that my h/w has become indecipherable. 
    Get him a dictaphone; explain that he can dictate even small changes faster than he can write them; e.g., “page 15, line 22, after “lazy associate” insert the following: get me a dictaphone.”
    get his secretary on board .  “Its a cinch for someone wih your experience.” (not “its the future”–experienced people are wary of the untested future)
    encourage him with jokes “When people ask to use your dictaphone, tell them use their fingers like everyone else.”
    True this may eliminate your utility as a mere scribe, but it might free you up to do something useful. By the way, you really are an unimaginative whiner.
    PS: make sure you tell him to hand it directly to his sec. The day one of is tapes is erased accidentally, is the day he’ll go back to scribbles.
    PPS: I know for sure that if my firm collapses, I can always get a job as an associate and become a partner somewhere else awfully fast.  With you whining and LF10 off at bars, I’ll make partner in no time.


    sounds like this partner must have been pretty awfully and professionally embarassed about his writing at some point, to be such an ass about it.
    Stuff doesn’t get to be such a sensitive subject otherwise.

  • Al Dickman

    Sounds like this boss is a real a-wipe.  These days, we have to man-up and deal with losers like this, while 4 or 5 years ago, we could walk out the door and get a better paying job within 2 weeks.  Given the reality of the recession, we will likely see more and more abuse like this, even to guys who are doing an otherwise great job.  It’s really sad, man.

  • Ridiculous

    a) First, walk into his office and politely ask to speak to him. Then, in a firm but not overly aggressive tone explain that you have attempted to please him by trying to decipher his writing, but that the situation cannot continue.  Explain that you’re more than happy to make his edits, but if you can’t decipher his writing, you’ll continue to ask for clarifications. 
    b) (And this is for everyone out there and for you when the partner doesn’t clarify) If you see an edit that doesn’t make sense, or that you think is better the way it was or that a different edit would be a better choice, then stand up for yourself.  Either make the edit the way you see fit, or directly ask him.  Defend your point.  He was absolutely right to get mad at you for using the wrong word in a pleading.  If it weakened your case, it was important enough for you to take care with it.
    In short:  Don’t be a pussy.

  • BL1Y

    Ridiculous: Your advice is to do basically what got this guy yelled at in the first place?  Awesome.  And I think Dickman is right, the recession has made the profession more of a buyer’s market.  Along with less wining and dining of law students, we’re going to see less respect and courtesy given to younger associates.

  • Marvin

    dude, sounds annoying. sorry. good luck.

  • Guano Dubango

    I agree.  The only worse situation would be if the partner were female.  Then you could not make bad comments to her, because she would get hysterical.  If I have a choice, I would only want man partner who is dumb.  I do not need dumb female partner to call me names.

  • ExCrimLawyer

    Dude, get the fuck out of there.  They’re not giving you feedback and the writing on the wall may mean nailing you for one of those 93 points that you may have missed.

  • anon

    just an FYI – handwriting experts say ppl who write with markers (felt tip pens in the author’s lingo) have a large sexual appetite. similarly, people who write with fine point pens are prudes.