Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Memories of an Executive Assistant

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Memories of an Executive Assistant

Article excerpt

When I began working as a legal secretary at King & Spalding in 1977, one of the first things I learned was that it was my misfortune to have just missed meeting the man who was considered God at the firm. His name was Griffin Bell, and he had just left the firm to become President Jimmy Carter's Attorney General. The stories about Judge Bell were so amazing that when I finally met him upon his return to the firm in the fall of 1979, I was almost surprised to see a slighdy built man instead of a giant.

It soon became apparent to me that Judge Bell elicited almost universal admiration and affection at the firm. What made him most endearing to the "non-lawyers" was his habit of speaking on the elevator to all of die people riding with him at the time. Even if you were a messenger or janitor, you received the same cheerful greeting or amusing assessment of the slow elevator service. It was only later diat I learned from Judge BeII that not all of die firm's senior partners at that time shared die same affection for him. As the new chair of the Management Committee in 1980, he was given an unprecedented amount of authority regarding partner compensation, and he made some challenging decisions that were ultimately good for die firm but unpopular with some senior partners, including a few long-time friends. At die same time, however, he refused to accept more compensation for himself dian his peers, even though he attracted a disproportionate share of firm business and bore an enormous burden managing the firm. In my opinion, this reflected his innate ability as a judge, having the courage to make difficult decisions while maintaining a strong sense of fairness. As he later observed, "In a leadership position, fleas come with the dog."

It was not until my return from an extended maternity leave in 1982 that I was given the opportunity to actually work for Judge Bell in my new capacity as a substitute secretary, filling in for his regular secretary who was on vacation. Naturally, I was almost quaking with fear at the awesome responsibility of working for "The Man." We got off to a somewhat rocky start when, following his secretary's instructions, I tried to transcribe his taped dictation in final form. As he handed back three letters thoroughly marked up with changes, he chuckled and said, "Maybe you should type drafts of my letters until you get used to my Southern accent. But don't worry; you're not die first one who has had trouble with my accent. When I was Attorney General, some people in Washington thought diat Brzezinski and I were both foreigners in President Carter's cabinet." The fact that he kindly took the time to make me feel at ease made me his fan for life.

Having learned that I loved editing, Judge Bell soon gave me the opportunity to spend an entire year editing all of the speeches diat he had made in his long career while I entered them into the computer system so diat they could be published at a later date if needed. Since the Judge had been called upon to speak at least three to four times a mondi, and even more often while he was U.S. Attorney General, you can imagine the wealth of material I had the privilege of reading and editing. By the end of diat year, I felt tfioroughly educated in history, law, and government. An impressive number of speeches were devoted to praising people the Judge admired or giving advice to graduates and young lawyers regarding die importance of public service. Of course, most of his speeches contained at least one story to illustrate a point, and diese anecdotes were often rich with Southern lore and die Judge's unique brand of insight and humor.

In 1997 Judge Bell's long-time secretary left the firm and he requested me as her replacement. I was working for Senator Sam Nunn at the time, but the Senator deferred to the Judge (as everyone did) , and die rest is history. Not long after coming on board, I asked the Judge if he would be willing to change my title to Executive Assistant since he was giving me more responsibilities with regard to his clients, his finances, calendar, correspondence, and die general running of his life. …

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