The Nightmare of Being a Virtual Assistant

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.


15 Comments / Post A Comment

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Possible candidate for most patient person alive.

I really, really liked this one. I worked tech support for a very long time, and I learned a few important lessons: it’s probably safe to assume that the customer will always end up being “right” (…but man, I wish I could have told off some of the people who said horrible things to me like you did); sometimes, it just takes the right rephrasing to de-escalate a situation; infinite patience and kindness and smiles reflected through the phone go so far to make people feel better about their problems and the system itself. I really liked how you changed your voice to help relate to people — this (or at least asking people about their days/lives/weather) is so great at helping you to become a human and not just a robot or a tool in people’s eyes.

I’m happy to be out (but glad to have been in). I hope life on the other side is treating you wonderfully.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

@Caitlin with a C I used to work in a very popular high-end consumer electronics store as a technical trainer. One of my coworkers left to go to nursing school and taught me a little bit about how they were taught to speak to patients. It really helped in talking people off of a lot of ledges.

I also answered the phones enough to know that people are SO much worse when they don’t have to look you in the face.

I had to leave that job because I’m too much of a puss and couldn’t take the abuse.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@qwer1234 Reminding people that you are a human goes a REALLY long way. “Oh, your computer crashed while you were working on a grad school project? What is your degree in? I majored in ___, but I took a class in that and loved it!” “You guys are located in Ohio? I’m originally from just outside of Cincy!”

…on the converse, I had to frequently remind myself that the people I spoke to were human too and that I knew well what a bad day under stress was like too. That helped.

@Caitlin with a C

It is such a weird line, right? I’ve definitely waffled on like, wow, these people are in abject misery, and yet I’d appreciate you not cursing me out at eleven in the morning.

@qwer1234 yep, people who don’t have to see you. I am obnoxiously nice and patient to any customer support person I interact with. Even Comcast!

My other tricks are using people’s first names. That comes from cocktailing and can backfire, but used sparingly, like a little bit of cinnamon in a chili, will work wonders.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

@Caitlin with a C Yeah, that was part of our basic training, but I learned there are just some people that are the worst and will be the worst possible person under even slight duress. A few times I even had people get offended that I dare empathize with them. But those people cannot be helped. And they wind up just bulldozing the world around them because it’s so much easier to just give them what they want than to deal with their bullshit.

Like @Carmen Aiken@facebook, it’s transformed my approach to service professionals. I’m tremendously shy when not “in character” like I was at that job, so sometimes it’s as little as smiling and making eye contact, but I know how that can really turn a person’s day around when all day people look right through them.

And REALLY changed how I interact with medical professionals. When you think about these same crazy assholes and what they must be like in pain, or delirious with fever, or on drugs. These really speaks to that other post about thanking your nurse. Seriously everybody: thank your nurse.

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

@qwer1234 Yes! I have never had quite such a terrible job, but I’ve had a lot of customer service jobs, some of which were pretty awful. (No, you may not smoke a joint in a crowded no-smoking venue. No, flirting with me will not help. No, switching to being nasty because I didn’t respond to your flirting will not scare me.) I’m pretty quiet/shy as well, but if anything I’m sometimes excessively chatty and smiley with cashiers and customer service people. I always feel terrible when I’m polite or patient about a delay or problem that isn’t the worker’s fault and they thank me profusely–I just imagine what the rest of their day is like.

snackcarts (#3,300)

I’m an (in-person) assistant at a (civil, not criminal, luckily) law firm and LORD are people the worst! Clients who call and harass you multiple times a day, dirty old men who sit leering in the lobby, the most entitled people you will ever meet, etc.

@snackcarts Seriously, the multiple times a day thing. Which I couldn’t understand because you know, when someone is in court, you can’t get at them. I have no idea why they thought this would work. But people think, I’m paying for a lawyer (which, yeah, $$), then I’m entitled to all. Oof. Keep on truckin’, real assistant! You’re a hero!

snackcarts (#3,300)

@Carmen Aiken@facebook Exactly! We have clients who will call every 15 minutes – even though I’ve told them the lawyer is out of the office and I’ve taken multiple messages – because I guess they think I’m lying to them? I know when you have a legal problem you must think it’s the biggest thing in your universe, but most lawyers juggle 50-60 cases each, so your piddling little workers comp case is NOT the only thing on a lawyer’s mind!

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

@snackcarts Me toooo! Luckily, most of my firm’s clients are polite, even if some are a little nutty. Though the week I started, some clients who were getting sued had mailed us something and it hadn’t arrived. Their solution to this was to call multiple times a day to berate me and the clerks and occasionally hang up on us mid-sentence. They refused to believe that the documents hadn’t arrived and that we’d call when the documents came in. Because we’d rather take abusive phone calls than open the mail?

LeslieLive (#4,796)

Oh no, this article makes me sad! I am an in-person Personal Assistant/Executive Assistant/Receptionist/Secretary/Whatever, and I have thought a few times that I would like to do Virtual Assistanting (is that a word??) I always thought I would do it through a company to get the hang of it, then go off on my own as a freelance/bespoke service, maybe with another 2 or 3 people. I have no problem with angry/crazy/whatever people on the phone, it’s when they show up that I get annoyed, so I thought virtual would be nice. Plus if I ran my own service, I could wear pajama pants all day, which is my main life goal.

@LeslieLive :( I hope not too sad! Here would be my counterpoint: a lot of this was the circumstances of how the company was run and just some terrible people to work for. And maybe they weren’t terrible people, but they were terrible at being lawyers maybe? The counterpoint is my aforementioned mother (woo CFP!) has/had a very amazing “virtual assistant” who made way more money than I ever did, worked more as a free agent, and they had a great thing going on (from what I understand). Keep the dream alive!

LeslieLive (#4,796)

@Carmen Aiken@facebook Thank you! I like to imagine that one day I can do my job in pajama pants. And that I will have to hide my pyramid of empty Diet Coke cans from NO ONE. I have a commute that I spend thinking about these things. And trying to learn French. I still do not know French.

CmdrBanana (#1,872)

I totally do that with the accents too, but without even realizing I’m doing it. I can’t NOT do it and I’m so worried that someone will someday call me on it.

Charlsie (#442)

This is how I felt about actually practicing law. As a lawyer, you are paid to deal with other people’s problems and responsibilities. A lot of lawyers suck at dealing with their own problems and responsibilites, and it takes a certain personality to not let other people’s problems crush your soul into tiny pieces. It’s a really brutal way to make money. Also, clients lie to their attorneys. I would do a full day of work for a client who I was pretty sure could not afford me, only to have them call me and tell me some key detail that changed everything, and made the work I had done useless. I know that debt collection is important to society, but someone else can garnish the wages of single mothers, it doesn’t have to be me. Foreclosures make me sad.

But bankruptcy can be fascinating. I never really felt that bad telling someone they had to either pay back their creditors in full or get rid of their harley. Life is full of tough choices, but if you can’t pay your mortgage, you can’t keep your boat. Bankruptcy felt a lot more like a solution than the other areas of law I practiced.

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