The Olden Days

Once upon a time, fifty two years ago almost to the day, I went to work for a very big law firm in Sydney. It is now known by a name another than that which it was known by then. Like many law firms of the day it had started as a family firm. By the time I worked there three members of the quite large partnership were still direct descendants of the founder. There were other, outstanding lawyers who had been made partners and others who were still cutting their legal teeth in the firm and who later became outstanding public figures. The firm has spawned many well known Judges, members of the bar in various places in the world, members of the media, and public figures in other walks of life. In those days they were all men.

As did most of the larger firms, it took on several articled clerks each year. In those days young lawyers learned their craft in the way apprentices still do today. Some of the time was spent at University and a full weeks work was also put in at the coal face. The lawyer who turned out at the end of the grueling six years was usually well trained.

Into this Aladdin’s mysterious cave I walked, the first female articled clerk this particular firm had employed, although there was one qualified female solicitor working there at the time I started.

But this is not to say it was an all male domain. By no means. The large office contained many women.

The most obviously impressive of them was a very imposing woman who sat in a small but prominent glassed in office in the middle of the office building. She ran the switch board, a complex mass of wires and plugs. Every time we left the office (and as junior articled clerks we often did as we filed documents, searched land titles at the Registrar Generals, delivered mail, served summonses etc.) we had to inform this woman that we were leaving the premises.

She had a phenomenal memory. I never saw her write anything down, but I suspect she must have done so when no one was watching. She knew exactly who was in the office at all times, and usually exactly where they were in that office and to whom they were speaking on the phone. She was evidence of what could be done with a highly trained memory. Socrates would have loved her as an example when he bemoaned the loss of memory that the adoption of reading and writing would cause.

I also remember standing, with others, staring with amazement through the glass as “her” brand new Telex Machine sent some of the first instantaneous written messages between Australia and clients and solicitors overseas.

But she was by no means the only very important woman in the firm.
Each of the partners, and most of the Solicitors had their own secretary. The importance of each of these secretaries was related directly to the importance of the person for whom she worked. Thus the senior partner’s secretary was obviously the most senior secretary. We very junior trainee lawyers would quake at the knees when approached by many of them. They knew very much more about the workings of the law than any of us did, and in fact many did work for their bosses that is similar to that para-legals do today. One hears the occasional older man make statements such as, “Whatever has happened to the education system? I can’t get a secretary like I could in the old days.” No he can’t. The type of women who worked as these high powered secretaries did yesteryear, are carving out their own careers today through their University and other training.

The wise woman lawyer working there gave me a surprising piece of advice shortly after my arrival.  She told me that, even if I knew how to type, to say I did not as otherwise I would be asked by a large number of people to type things for them. I did not know how to type so was able to truthfully answer this question in the negative. As time progressed I realized that this had been wise advice. After all in those days typing was a woman’s job. Law wasn’t. Also this was the stage that electric typewriters were becoming very common. They were very fierce-some beasts! As articled clerks we shared secretaries and sometimes could coax and cajole someone else to type for us! Young men who can now competently type at their word processors would be amused to know it was assumed they would not be capable of performing such tasks.

But in this office were also two women who did not command a glass room and who did not immediately impress with their typing abilities or their ferocity. They were both elderly, quiet and appeared very sweet ladies (at any rate they were very nice to me). They, too, were related to the founder of the firm and were sisters of two of the partners of that tIme. They ran the office filing system.

Bear in mind that this was a very large firm and it was well before office computers were even a mere twinkle in someone’s eye. Simple mainframe computers had just started, usually to be found experimentally only in Universities and their like.  

These ladies, Miss P and Miss M, at first fitted the image of two spinster sisters who had been found something to do in their brothers’ firm. That’s how I first thought about it and, in my blind way as I focused on my own vision of what it was to carve out a different role in life as a woman, I continued to think this for some time.

But gradually, and even more so with the wisdom of hindsight and experience, I realized that their expertise and skill was largely what contributed to the smooth running of the firm. Another good example for Socrates! They ran  a card system which matched clients and their matters to workers. But they remembered all the finer details, all the relationships between clients and matters, former matters, other clients. They remembered details of matters long passed. Computers could match, with greater speed, a lot of what they did but they also knew the nuances and relationships in a way that no programmer would be able to get a computer to recognize and assess. They, at times, told  useful and interesting anecdotes.

As an older woman now with more knowledge of the management and carriage of legal cases and files I realize just how valuable they were. Despite the extra knowledge in the minds of the qualified lawyers, their grasp of situations made them invaluable.  Looking back I realize that, if they had been born just a few years later and had had some educational opportunities, they may well have reached legal heights like Justice Roma Mitchell did in 1965.

How far we women have come. How much thanks for this must we give to these type of women who, while sticking rigidly to the gender roles forced upon them by society, performed above and beyond many men of their time? Although they did not quite destroy any joints it is important to remember just how much they did. I am writing this in the hope that they never go unremembered by the future generations of women and that our plaudits do not only go to the spectacularly outspoken working women of the past or future but to ones who worked hard and contributed with pride.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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