The Nightmare of Being a Virtual Assistant

by Carmen Aiken

For almost two and a half years I worked as a virtual assistant to consumer attorneys across the country. When I started the job I fielded calls in the evening, and by the end I was a go-to box of answers to my supervisors, the one who took the hard calls and worked business hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I never needed to Google what time it was in Fayetteville, Ark. or Riverside, Calif. I knew how to spell last names without asking. Some of my attorney clients asked how I was when I transferred their calls and told me about their weekends.

The drawbacks were numerous: I was being paid just a few dollars above the minimum wage; there had been three rounds of layoffs; I trained new employees and saw no possibility of advancement. Every day was full of clients weeping into the phone, or worse. So with only the faintest idea of applying to a graduate program, no back up plan, and fruitless interviews and applications behind me, I did what I’d never done before in my 10 years of working: I quit.

When I started the job, my managers drilled into us that we were never to give legal advice, because it was against the law. Like every job I’ve ever had, I spent my first months terrified of getting fired, staying late, working hard and aiming to please. It was my work ethic, apparently, and my phone voice (which I’ve always hated) that got me promoted after two months to the position of “Personal Assistant Virtual Receptionist.”

In 2009, the company, which was based in Chicago, had the flash most startups had in 2009: two floors of an office building in the heart of the Loop, beer on Fridays, and video games for the Ruby developers. The CEO, a boyish nerd-jock-college dropout had started it from his crappy Bucktown apartment, and made a point of having company meetings where he half-smiled at us. The idea was to basically help small consumer law firms drum up business. Provide the marketing, the call center, the support staff, and Johnny B. Family Law attorney working out of his Kia could get more business without any of the work. He just needed to pay a nifty fee once a month.

You know those ads running in the early afternoon or late at night? Have you been injured in a car accident or on the job? Do you need to divorce your spouse? Bills got you down? Call us now. I answered those phone calls. First as a call center operator connecting consumers to the attorneys (with specific instructions IF they wanted to take a call 24/7 or if they wanted a transfer through to voicemail), and then as the girl Friday of an attorney’s office, starting their client file and setting up their appointments. Attorneys finally figured out ways for us to get deposits put down, which is about the time most people who call an attorneys office after seeing an ad between Maury and Steve Wilkos hang up.

At the highest virtual assistant volume of work I had, I probably took 20 calls an hour, meaning I talked to over a hundred people a day. This wasn’t because I was especially favored — the calls came in randomly over the team. But they’d fired a bulk of the phone staff and everyone despised taking VR (Virtual Receptionist) calls. These calls were complicated, and there was a high possibility that the person on the other end was going to be a handful.

Mostly this was because the bulk of the attorney clients the company served were bankruptcy attorneys. There are a lot of reasons I’m terrified of bankruptcy, being that I’m a total miser and daughter of a certified financial planner, but most of it is due to getting a very real understanding of how filing for bankruptcy works. I was amazed people had no idea that you do not need an attorney to file for bankruptcy. Even the government recommends hiring an attorney, saying the complicated process is easily mishandled, but I saw attorneys not show up to creditor meetings, who lost lists of assets, or who didn’t file on time. This is anecdotal advice, but I would say you might just have a better shot at doing it yourself, depending on if your attorney was my client at one point.

Between people being blasé about their thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt (two houses, iPads, jetskis, bail bonds, house payments) I assisted drunks who felt personally slighted they were on their third DUI, public defender clients brought up on charges I’d only ever heard about on crime shows, and a nice employment attorney in Minnesota (of course).

I sat at my desk with my headset on, the VOIP kicked in, and my screen flashed: “Law office of [Insert Busy Lawyer Name Here], Carmen speaking, how can I help you today?” I clocked my typing speed at the time: over 150 words per minute. I stopped needing my 30-second break between calls.

Some people working there had interests in law. My own was purely based on having an English degree and no prospects in the recession. There were a lot of actors or aspiring improv stars, a couple guys in bands, former retail and cocktail bar workers desperate for a job where they could watch YouTube or GChat all the livelong day.

I am not an actor, but I know what made me so good and why I hit the highest bonuses (for the brief period we had them, where I made more money I’d ever seen) of the team. People believed I was in the office with them because I got a thrill when they did, and because they were less inclined to be cruel to me. I got good at giving colloquial directions by using landmarks I found on Google maps (“Down the road from the Piggly Wiggly!”), I asked about traffic, I was chummy.

Basically, I imitated the people I talked to on the phone. I switched my accent constantly, swinging from the easy drawls of North Carolina to the leaner swirls going west from Fayetteville to West Texas. California was easy: I didn’t change a thing. So, too, the Bronx and New Jersey. I basically took my too-drunk belligerent tongue and chewed it up a little bit.

My work friends, who I still miss, teased me endlessly, quoting what I’d just said on the phone (“We’ll see you later this afternoon, honeybun”). I constantly felt deeply embarrassed, but when recounting stories from work, most of my friends laughed and didn’t say a thing. No one on the phone ever called me out, so I just kept doing it. Now I have a friend from Arkansas and I cannot believe anyone ever really thought Todd’s secretary would make sure he got the paperwork.

I began to give up two years after I got the job. I was coming home furious to a patient roommate, drank away Sunday nights because I dreaded going to work, constantly called in sick, showed up late, and never went out with anyone from work because it mean keeping the specter of work in my life. I’d seen most of my supervisors get laid off, and promotions never came my way, probably because I hated the thought of getting more entrenched in the company. I applied to many jobs, went on interviews, and asked around at my bar to see if they needed barbacks.

But what broke me was the week before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I took a call for a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, an affable guy who had a roster of public defense clients with zero chances of escaping prison time. This client would not follow directions: He was told to stay away from his ex-wife’s home; he would not. He was told to show up to court; he didn’t. He was bad news. But I could handle him by being polite and revealing no emotion.

I was telling him that his attorney would call him when he was out of court when he snarled and paused before saying, “Carmen. That’s a fucking [racial slur I do not want to promote] name. So it’s you and him and all you [racial slurs] running this and ruining my life?”

I lost it. I can’t remember exactly what I said, only that the entire office went silent and after I finished, I hung up the phone on him. I yanked my headset off and heard my buddy Brian start the slow clap. My boss across the way just nodded, wide-eyed, and gave me the thumbs up.

“If he calls back, he goes directly to me.” When people called from the same number, we could track it using our system. I rapidly changed the source-code in the attorney’s profile to instruct my co-workers to transfer this specific client directly to my extension.

He called back.

“Now, you are going to listen and you are going to listen well,” I said. “No one, not one person, ever gets to use language like that to me. And I guarantee you I do not give one goddamn if you end up in jail forever, because I know why you’re gonna go there, you utter trash. If you don’t want people like us to help you, that’s fine. I’m happy to never give one more message to Carlos and ensure he will forget all about you. And every time you call, you are going to talk to me. And if you ever speak to me or anyone in this office like that again, I’m just going to hang up on you every. Single. Time.” And that’s what I did.

I never found out what happened to him because I was gone by the end of the month. A higher up took me for martinis at two in the afternoon the day after I gave notice and explained why the company was going under soon. There were more mass layoffs. I do miss working downtown.

There’s nothing else to miss, really. I understand the services we provided were perhaps helpful sometimes, and everyone has to make a buck, but if anything made me distrust the field of law in this country, this job basically taught me to tell anyone I met thinking about law school to run far away. And I never want to truck in human misery like that again, helping strip mall lawyers ignore the 2000 or so bankruptcy and mortgage cases they bought from another firm that went over (yes, this happened), and tell sobbing old women I was sorry and there wasn’t anything I could do. It is highly likely I’ll only find more hard and terrible facts working in city policy, but any speaking I do will be in my own weird Chicago accent. When I say, “You have a good one,” I’ll mean it.

Carmen Aiken is a writer and city policy graduate student living in Chicago.