As ‘The Godfather’ and my mother (there’s really not much difference) have instilled in me from a young age, most things in life are business and not personal. I learned pretty quickly to adapt to this mentality and apply it to my everyday life, especially to work over the years. But even I was surprised to learn that this self-declared family proverb applied when I was working in a restaurant for many – actually too many – years in my former life and now in my career as a family law paralegal.
From time to time, I can’t help comparing my years of experience. In both industries, to be successful, there is a definite skill set overlap. The truth is that you have to learn to deal with some pretty unhappy people, multitask beyond what you think you might be capable of, and keep an objective voice with whomever you’re talking to – sometimes more often than you thought you would.
One of the biggest challenges of serving people in a restaurant always includes the fact that they are hungry when you first cross paths with them. I don’t know about anyone else, but in my experience, hangry is a real phenomenon and dealing with family dynamics on top of that always adds an interesting mix. At the table, a mother and daughter may be arguing about how to order a filet mignon while the kitchen is already backed up. Those diners are now beyond starving when the food arrives late, with their steak cooked medium well as opposed to medium rare. Understandably, things are tense and awkward for both sides, but it is the server who gets caught in the middle. Your job is not to sit down in the booth and commiserate with the guests, as tempting as that might be. Your job is to let them know you’re handling everything as best you can to get them answers, provide a new entrée, and leave them with an overall satisfactory experience despite the circumstances.
Although not a parallel situation (it would be really weird if I gave a steak to a family law client), I do think much is the same when working with dinner guests and clients. A lot of the people we work with are at a crossroad with their families. Whether divorcing their spouse or dealing with custody of children, many of our clients are navigating family dynamics in uncharted territory. As paralegals, we are oftentimes on the front lines of talking with clients when they are emotionally hungry, for lack of a better description. Take the client who calls with anger and frustration over waiting too long for their custody order. Although I know those emotions are not directed at me, but at the situation, I again find myself in the middle and that my job still involves heading to the kitchen to find out why the order is taking so long. I discover that the court is backed up and relieve the client by conveying the overall situation affecting many clients and giving an estimate of when they can expect to receive their order. My job still involves trying to provide an overall satisfactory experience despite unpleasant circumstances.
Whenever someone is not putting their best foot forward, I try to keep in mind that we’ve all been in tense family dinners and have all had our share of heartache and frustration. And, of course, that it’s business, not personal.