Monday, November 7, 2011
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I worked at a law firm. My official position in the firm was as an assistant auditor of legal billing. Part of the firm was involved in a sort of auditing side-business. When a client received an astronomical bill from their law firm (other firms, not ours!) they would bring said bill to us, and after much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the extent of the charges thereof, we would review the bill and recommend that it be reduced based on our findings.
Our department would pour over every entry, every cost, every .20 and .10 hour increment claimed by said lawyers and gather any questionable entries. Then we would input all of those hours and charges into our handy dandy database, do some fancy reconfiguring of the erroneous charges, and spit out a report detailing all of the areas in the bill that were excessive or downright silly. I was a spitter outer of reports. I did the entering of the hours and charges into the computer, I maintained the integrity of the database, and I put it all together in a report complete with colored tabs and pie charts.
Notice that, at no point in that process, do I perform any sort of accounting work.
Database work — yes; typing — lots of it; fancying up of reports — I'm your girl; but no accounting beyond simple math. I'm an art major, for goodness' sake. I haven't taken a math course since 10th grade!
So, after a few years of doing said work, one of the lawyers in the firm asked me if I would help him out with a case. He asked if I could look over some numbers and see if they add up, then put together a report of my findings.
"Sure," I said, assuming that all I would be doing is basic addition and a spread sheet. "But you might want to ask someone in the accounting department to do this for you."
"Oh, no, you come highly recommended," he said with a smile. "I'm confident you can do this, it's really not that complicated. Plus I need someone who can possibly discuss the findings at the deposition."
I was flattered into agreeing. Stupid pride!!
It seemed intriguing to be involved in an actual case; something fun and different to do instead of the mundane database stuff. How hard could it be, right?
The next day I found a small stack of papers sitting on my desk. I looked through them, typed the numbers into the computer, and made a nice little chart adding them up. "This is easy," I thought to myself. I called the lawyer up and told him my findings.
"Okay. Now I need you to do some projections, based on these charges accruing interest annually."
The joy and the color in my face was gone. "But I'm not an accountant; I'm not even sure how to calculate interest."
"Well, do the best you can, and let me know what you find out. You're smart, you'll figure it out. Thanks!!"
In a panic, I called the accounting department. They were no help, since their main function was to input payroll information into the computer and hit print. I then did what all of us do when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem — I did a google search on interest. I poured through the web pages and tried to wrap my brain around everything I would need to know.
After several hours of wide-eyed panic, I finally figured it all out — at least, I hoped I did — and put together my report. I asked everyone I could think of to look at it, but it turns out no one in the firm felt comfortable enough to do a thorough review of my work to see if it was correct.
My heart sank. I turned in my questionable report and had a moment of self-doubt with the lawyer. I tried to convince him that it was in his best interest to find someone with more expertise. For some reason, he was blissfully ignorant of how ignorant I was. I was shocked at his lack of concern over my inadequacy for the task.
Then came the painful part of trying to figure out what conclusion I was supposed to draw from the report. I got as much information about the case as I could, told him what I thought, and somehow stumbled on the conclusion he was looking for. He smiled, and said I did a great job. I felt like simultaneously bursting out laughing and bursting into tears.
Oh, and did I mention I was going on maternity leave soon, I was huge with my first child, and hormonal? It was awesome.
I went away from the meeting with the lawyer having, really, no clue what had just happened. But apparently I had reported on the right conclusions. I was in no way comfortable talking about it, however. The terminology I had used that I found in my google search was still new to me, and I kept getting terms mixed up. I can't even recall now what it was I did, just some random basic accounting stuff that I only muddled through because of fear of failure.
Then there was the problem of the deposition.
Have you ever been grilled by opposing counsel as an "expert" witness? It would be one thing to enter this situation, knowing what to expect, and feeling secure with my skills. This wasn't that situation.
Anxious doesn't even begin to cover it.
I had to arrive at a huge building in downtown Los Angeles and find my way to some random office in the building. It's nothing short of a miracle that I didn't get lost, or get into an accident in my stress-induced tunnel vision state of being. I was that woman hunched over the steering wheel, mouth agape, gripping the wheel as best I could with so much sweat pouring out of my palms.
Did I mention the hugely hormonal and pregnant part? And the part where I walk around like I'm 89 because my joints are painfully mushy from the hormones?
I finally found the office, accepted a drink of water, and opened the door to the conference room — which, I found out rather instantly, I wasn't supposed to do. Everyone surrounding the large table stopped speaking, turned, and stared. "We'll call you in when we're ready for you," a random voice said.
So much for appearing professional. I meekly sat down in a chair and felt my tunnel vision getting worse. Somehow I managed not to burst into tears. Finally, the lawyer from the firm called me in.
I awkwardly swung my massive belly around and between the chairs and plunked down on my seat. The deposition began, and the lawyer for the other side questioned my legitimacy as an expert witness. She brought up that I had majored in art, and noted that I have no accounting background. I wanted to scream "She's right!! I warned you!!" Thank goodness she didn't ask me how I learned about calculating interest. "Well, I did a google search, ma'am. I haven't taken an actual math class since I was 14 years old."
I pulled myself together and after I described what my job had been, and the math used to come to the conclusions I came to (which really wasn't that complicated — just something I wasn't used to) my testimony was allowed.
At this point we took a break, and the lawyer for the other side started gushing about babies and pregnancy and gave me advice on sleep training. It was surreal, and at the time, it felt absurd. The whole day felt like one of those dreams where you're late for the first day of school, you're trying to figure out where your next class is, but the schedule in your hands is made out of jell-o and is fading fast, and you're wearing a ballet outfit.
I don't really remember what happened next, except that I got some of the numbers mixed up and accidentally said the opposite of what I meant to say. Everyone was confused; me most of all. But after some backtracking, I somehow managed to string logical sentences together and correct myself. It was horrible, horrible, horrible having to be an "expert" about something that I had just learned the other day. Horrible. And awful. And everyone there could see just how excruciating the deposition had been for me; my face tends to get scary red in situations like this. I have no doubt that at least one person feared I was going to go into labor and had already formed a plan to call 911.
I wielded my achy, huge, embarrassed self out of that chair as soon as possible and humbly rested my head on the steering wheel in the sanctity of my car. That's when the tears came. Why had I allowed myself to do something so far outside of my true expertise? I thought this was going to be fun and interesting?!?
Days later, I found myself trapped in the elevator with the lawyer who had gotten me into the mess in the first place. I wanted to stop at the next floor and run. It was very Ally McBeal. I knew he regretted ever approaching me to do this project in the first place. How could he not, after such an unprofessional performance? So it was a surprise when he said "thank you so much for your work, you did a great job! We won!"
I laughed and asked him if he was serious. I assumed he was just trying to make me feel better. "No; in fact, I'm wondering if you can help me out on a couple of other projects." Apparently I had miraculously stumbled through the thing successfully. It was random luck.
I kindly told him that I was having a baby soon, and didn't want to start on any projects that I couldn't complete. Then I went and hid in the bathroom and cried again. Apparently I cry a lot when pregnant. And sweat profusely.
That lawyer actually called me up after I had quit, and asked if I would reconsider helping him on some cases as a part-time gig. I declined, the pain being too recent. He didn't understand how much my success depended on good ol' dumb luck. I think it came down to the bottom line; I was much cheaper than hiring an actual accountant to serve as an expert. But legal auditing and accounting are really not the same thing!
Instead, I decided to stay home with this sweet little being.
It was an easy choice.
Sure, I wasn't an expert at this mothering thing either, but at least she wouldn't ask me to calculate interest and appear at a deposition. At least, not for a long, long time.
Once upon a time, I was an expert witness in a deposition.