Why “Working Scribe”?
A few years ago, maybe 2004 or so, a voicemail between two big-firm associates became “internet infamous.” In that exchange, one was berating the other by voicemail for alleged failure to send a marked-up mortgage draft or the like back during mildly tense negotiations, asking whether or why certain desired changes couldn’t simply be made by a “monkey-[deleted] scribe.” The implication was that “scribe” – presumably a paralegal or clerk – was simply a draftsman, even a key-punch worker without skill, so why he couldn’t just get it done? I am informed that the utterer of this infamous voicemail blast ultimately made partner at Winston & Strawn, but perhaps that information is wrong.
This exchange stuck in my mind for, well, almost a decade and a half now.
A lot of people will focus on the incivility of the vulgarity – perhaps with good cause. Others will focus on general bad behavior associated – in my view and experience, incorrectly – with large law firm life.
What struck me was the implied idea that attorneys were not scribes, or scriveners in early modern era of English, but some higher order of person or station. This struck me as utterly false.
There is a lot of pomp and self-importance associated with the practice of law, regrettably in my view. Foreign titles of nobility are adverse to the constitution of the United States; neither states nor the federal government may issue noble titles, and the acceptance of a noble title from a foreign power might, under a proposed amendment still technically pending, forfeit U.S. citizenship. But American attorneys address each other as “Esquire” in formal correspondence, reflecting idiosyncratically the courtesy title given in England to men above the rank of gentlemen and below that of a knight. I know of one attorney whose uncle, an attorney before him, mowed the grass in a shirt and tie in the heat of the summer in North Jersey because it was unseemly for an attorney to be seen anywhere without a tie, even if covered in grass clippings in his own back yard.
I don’t come from attorneys. My father at 74 still cuts metal, cork and maybe most frustratingly leather in his custom fishing tackle business. Leather can be cut, poked with an awl, burned, tanned, cured and ruined, but not bullshitted. My mother is a retired registered nurse who did not every form of nursing that exists, but pretty close; my sister is likewise a nurse. Neither of these lines of work are forgiving of nonsense, of greasing away problems because of “who you know” or “friends downtown.” Burnt leather is burnt leather; a dead body is a dead body. Wearing a tie and referring to yourself as “Esquire” while cutting the grass won’t un-fry an egg, un-scratch anodized aluminum reel parts or raise the dead.
In the end it is in our work – not in our pomp, our mastery over others in some hierarchy or in our relation to people with power that we attorneys gain dignity, add value, are worthy. Much of our work involves the exercise of (good, one hopes) judgment under stress – telling a client that his cause is foolish and should be abandoned, deciding how to handle a fragile but key witness, judging risks large and small. It is in the work done well that we should take our respect, not in how many diplomas we hang on the wall or the cheers even of our fellow attorneys.
“Scribe” is an honorable profession. Much of what we do is scribe work. We sell scrivened documents; what we in an era of moveable type call “typographical errors” were, in the prior era, known as “scrivener’s errors.” The scribal arts are a large part of what we do – producing good content and, maybe more importantly, good form. The work and the clients who rely on it deserve that we respect the work, instead of respecting or admiring in our narcissism our mirror or our metaphorical mirrors in the forms of plaques and certificates that tell us that we are, in the atrocity of today’s youth, “awesome.”
Good scribe work is hard and honorable. The work – and only the work – deserves respect, if not our “love.”
We should be proud to be working scribes.