Monday, June 28, 2010


So much of this blog has been about jobs, about work and the loss of work, that it seems like I should write down what it is like to work right now, in this strange file clerk job, here in the middle of my life. I do not find myself in Dante's wood, because that sounds picturesque, and this office life is quieter, like a ship rolling in windless waters, moving sideways on a slippery sea. It's Monday, and that means tossing for that last hour of precious sleep, waiting for the alarm to go off, then dragging out of bed and into the shower, throwing pajamas back on long enough to make coffee, breakfast, and lunch, packing all of these, then back to throw on clothes before dashing out to the car, hopefully before 8 a.m., and driving the 45 minutes to work.

My judge is supposed to be here by 9 or 9:30 but she never gets to the office much before 10. I'm supposed to be at work by 8:30 but I'm always late.

My responsibilities consist chiefly in preparing the call for the Judge for each court day, which I usually do a week in advance. This means I get the schedule in the box outside my door by 9:30 am, and it is my job to pull all the files for all the cases. Since these are filed by day--say, 23, or 9--I should be able to open the file drawer and find all my cases under "23." Cases can be misfiled, or scheduled for other things under other days, so there are usually some cases you have to hunt down. I do this by double-checking the court date on my back-up call--the call from the last time the case was heard, where I write down the new court date--or by looking the case number up in the clerk system. If there are other court dates for that case, or for siblings in the same folder, the system will show them, and I can look under that number in my file drawers.

The cases I pull are called the "control sheets," and they consist of name and address information, the original petitions filed when the case came into the system, motions, psychological evaluations, service plans, and the judge's notes about the hearings. A case can be heard for initial evaluation, for Adjudication, for Disposition, for services, for various kinds of status updates, and to set goals. The process of setting hearings is determined by statute, so the initial hearing, called a TC (for Temporary Custody) hearing, occurs first, followed by a rehearing, a Trial to determine whether the charges against the parents or guardians are valid, a Dispositional Hearing to determine whether the child can return home under an Order of Protection or not, and subsequent hearings, called Permanency Hearings, that evaluate the goals of that child's placement and services. These goals range from return home to adoption or independence, depending on the child's age.

Every day in court is filled with these hearings. I pull the control files, arrange them in a pile in the order they appear on the call, and look for any motions that have to do with the cases. I get these when they are filed, and I have to keep track of them to include with the call. Once I have my pile of cases, I make notes on the call about what each case is up for, and whether there are any private attorneys on the case. Keeping track of the private attorneys helps all of us know when a case is ready to be heard, which is usually when all the parties are present. If an attorney is missing, we have to postpone the case to later in the morning, or even give it a new court date.

Once I have made notes on the call, I make 11 copies of it to distribute. I give one copy to each to the State's Attorney, the Public Guardian, the Public Defender, DCFS, the Court Clerk, the Court Reporter, and the Court Sheriff. I put a copy on top of the Judge's call, give one copy to my supervisors, give one copy to the main Clerk's Office, and keep the two remaining copies for the day the call will be heard. On that day, I post one of the copies outside the courtroom and keep one for "back up," which means I write the next court date for each case next to that case after it is heard.

So much for doing the call, which I do before or after court. During the day when court is in session, it is my job to see which parties are ready to go, and call their cases in the courtroom. I then announce the name of the case at the door, and the parties, caseworkers, and families come in. The Judge hears the case, and then asks for a new court date for the next hearing. I give out dates from a big binder notebook, depending on the month or span of time she wants (within the next 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, or 6 months). These dates are determined by the type of hearing: status hearings can be any time for any reason, whereas Permanency Hearings are held every six months until the case is closed by return home, adoption, or independence.

After I write the date in the binder, I write it on the control sheet files when the Judge hands them back to me after the hearing, so they can be filed for the new date. During the hearing itself, I fill out data sheets. These are not part of the controls, but they are filed elsewhere. They are sent down on the day of the trial, and they are to keep track of the parties that attend the hearings and what goals and visitation decisions are determined that day.

When court is done, I drop my data sheets in the interoffice mail, gather my control sheets, and refile them under their new dates. If I finished my call I am done for the day, and can read, browse facebook, answer email, or do whatever until 4:20. At that point I open my door and begin listening for the voices of the other Court Coordinators, who come down to sign out a little before the official end of the day at 4:30.

And that is what work is like. It is the same every day. Sometimes the hearings are different; we may have a trial, or get a TC coming into the system. Sometimes I idly flip through a set of controls to see why the case is here. Most often, it is because a child is born with drugs in its system. Sometimes children are abandoned, or their mother dies, or their caretaker becomes disabled. These are the good cases. Other cases come in because children have been killed, or severely injured, or sexually abused.

My Judge might ask me to look up some cases, though she has only done this twice in the three months I've been there. On Fridays we have no Court Reporter, so there may be one case, or even two, but no call to speak of, which means no work to do. When I was teaching I would catch up on grading or reading during the down time. These days I make phone calls, do email, or read. Now, of course, it means I have time to blog. In a few months, it will mean I can start looking for another job to replace this one, not because it's a bad job, but because it doesn't go anywhere, which is why the turnover is so high and I got it in the first place.

I can't complain. When I try to say what it is I don't like, it all gets fuzzy. Are the people nice? Very. Is the work interesting? Not really, but it's not horrible, and the process of a courtroom can be interesting. Do you hate it? No. Do you look forward to it? Not at all, and in fact I dread it, but when I'm here it's not terrible. Still, though, there's not happiness, or the sense of accomplishing, well, anything.

The days go by. My office is set down from the street level, so I look up and watch people walking. I watch the trees wave in the hot wind. Now that I am alone in my office, I can listen to music, though this will change as soon as they hire someone to replace my former office mate, who left to be a Public Defender.

I think about time passing, and how entry-level jobs ask for so little engagement, but so much delayed gratification. They ask you to start over, to bide your time. They ask you to be grateful, to anticipate reward. They ask you not to want, but to be happy with what you have. They ask you for a minimum of one year, or two, or three. They ask you to be nobody, but a cheerful nobody. They don't want your soul, or your mind, just your body.

I make even less than I did as an Assistant Professor, but not by much. I don't write anything or read anything. There is no grading, or teaching. There are no meetings.

Now I am just like everybody else out there sitting in their offices, dreaming of something else, if they even have an office. Lots of college grads don't, nor do people with graduate degrees--PhDs, lawyers. Plenty of people in my law class have no jobs, and the classes behind me are doing much worse. Some schools are starting LLM programs for recent grads just to keep them from being unemployed, and to keep up the rankings of the schools. Others are raising GPAs ac4ross the board to make students competitive with those from top ten schools, where they don't really grade at all anymore.

In late capitalism, we are required to--must!--feel extraordinarily lucky if we have any kind of job at all.

I watch the afternoons wane, from spring to early summer, from early summer to midsummer, each day blowing away through the trees outside my windows. I want to hatch a plan but the room is warm, and I am tired. We are all supposed to give thanks for what we have, in this time of no jobs and no future. I am thankful for my health benefits and regular paycheck, but I wish all of this could not be for nothing. I wish there could be a place of realization, of flowering again, of the drawing up of powers. And so I think on this to the end of work, and to 4:30, and beyond it, to another day, hoping for a plan.


Sarah said...

To answer your earlier question : I'm reading and I loved this post.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I'm still reading (and alive, though I am sure your zombie readership is high too, they just can't type).

It is too bad that the great leap from comfort into unknown waters, all the ups and downs ends with an office where you stare out the window longing for something 'out there' - though for things like volunteering, or charity vacations, lawyers are in desperate need from asylum seekers to local excluded individuals. Could the satisfaction you desire be found outside the office?

Health care is good.

Workplace Health & Safety said...

I'm a bit late here to the trail - am I able to still contribute to the conversation. Have a lot of interesting stuff on healthcare particularly in the office.