“Sit near the staff.”

My mother insisted on this before I began my pupilage at my father’s firm in 1998.

She did not approve of the firm’s arrangement where the bosses, lawyers and pupils sat upstairs near the library whereas the staff – comprised of the receptionist, clerks and dispatch – sat downstairs.

Sit near the staff. There is no one supervising them downstairs. Because of that they do as they like downstairs. Whenever I call the office no one picks up or they take so long to pick up the call. On the few occasions I go to the office I find them chatting and not doing their work. Hopefully, they will be more diligent when the boss’s son sits downstairs. So sit near the staff. And don’t tell dad I asked you to sit downstairs!”

The backdrop to this is everyone at the firm knew where I was supposed to sit before I even arrived. There were five rooms on the first floor. The two closest to the office frontage were taken by the bosses, my father and Izzat; the one beside my father’s room was taken by a lawyer named, Rose. The one beside Izzat’s room was reserved for me. The last and biggest room was the library.

My room had a table, chair, a phone line and shelves but stayed empty for years. No one was allowed to occupy the room. I had the privilege of occupying it during my pupillage; a privilege denied to all pupils because only lawyers got rooms; but I didn’t.

“Of course, mom.”

I told my father I wanted the empty cubicle downstairs which sat at the back of the office. At the time it was used as storage space because it was unoccupied. He thought it strange but indulged me. It was a strategic choice. There were three main areas downstairs; the reception, the office area, and the storage area; the ratio of the respective areas were 1:5, 3:5, and 1:5. I had a view of the office and storage area but not the reception, which was enough because all the staff were stationed there save for the receptionist.

The party was over for them once I sat in that cubicle. My first month in that cubicle recalled the first four lines of the first stanza of Yeat’s The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The staff were well-behaved for the first week or so but fell apart soon after. They lapsed to their old ways. I saw how late the dispatch boys came to the office, when they did; heard the account’s clerk constant chatter whilst seated at her desk with the other clerk across the room; saw the litigation clerks call up their children and spouses for chats and not doing their work when not on medical leave; saw the conveyancing clerks leave the office as they pleased; and whole lot more. I once mentioned a specific instance of how outrageous the situation was here. It is not easy keeping up a daily pretence of work without the vice of habit.

Watching them work was work. With the “office machinery” now laid bare to me, I could see the gears were faulty, rusty and in dire need of an overhaul. Just to give a sense of the timelines they worked to – a senior litigation clerk took a week to draw up a substituted service application; I could do that in 15 minutes! Needless to say, almost all of them disliked me and thought me a pain in the ass.

After I completed my pupilage, I requested for my cubicle area to be converted into a partitioned room so I could maintain vigilance over the staff whilst shoring up some privacy for myself. I eventually got rid of all but two of the employees and hired new ones to fill the vacancies. I gave up the room reserved for me. Since then, it is a habit of mine to choose a room next to the staff area. Experience helps me appreciate the wisdom of my mother’s advice and the benefits that flow from it. Aside from better supervision, sitting close to the staff gives me more opportunities to interact with them; that makes for closer and more meaningful relationships.

But if I were to choose where to sit, I would prefer it to be like when I first set up the firm in 2016: a few tables and abandoned chairs left from the previous tenant arranged to form a square in a room which I sat around with my lawyers and pupils. We had no staff then – we all took turns – it was not comfortable or luxurious; and the furniture was crap. But what I liked best about that arrangement was our working hours would be inevitably be punctuated with impromptu conversations, discussions and laughter throughout the day; and when I left the office in the evening, it was with a sense of having spent the day out with good friends.

It is not the seat but who we are seated with that matters.

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