Graham S.

1-800-Legal-Helpers


ISSUE 76 | BAD JOBS | JUN 2017

In the spring of 2008, I was without work after quitting an hourly-wage newspaper job to travel. I was looking for more work that utilized my Spanish language skills, and replied to a random Craigslist ad for a legal assistant position. When I was offered an interview, I realized it was in the (then) Sears Tower, on floor 51. I thought this must mean it had some cachet or something.

The goateed lawyer in charge of this office gave me a job offer, which consisted of a nine-hour workday manning the phones in a call center for one of the country’s largest bankruptcy law firms. (If I had ever had a late-night TV habit, I would have recognized the name Legal Helpers from their ubiquitous ads with a 1-800 number plastered all over them.) Upon receiving the formal offer via email, I immediately demanded a six-hour workday, a higher wage, and a late-morning start time. This would be the only saving grace of this job, which I stayed at for just three weeks.

Once I got trained in by a suspiciously gung-ho middle-level supervisor, I was set up with my own work station at which I received calls and updated clients’ case records. At this point the nature of the work became clear.

Poor people around the country were told by a TV ad that they could call this number and save thousands of dollars by filing personal bankruptcy (Chapter 7 or Chapter 11). This was a few years after Democrats had helped push through a law making bankruptcy much more difficult and punitive for individuals, and more lucrative for banks.

My job was to get new clients on board, and string existing clients along. There was always some reason that the lawyer couldn’t bring the case to court: more paperwork, more fees, more scheduling constraints, more in-person visits needed. The company had seemingly grown its client base far more rapidly than it had bulked up its legal staff, and the only driving force for us was to keep perpetuating this ruse.

Get the poorest, most desperate people in the country to send in money, and politely tell them that we’re working on it, we’ll get you through to the other side soon. All day, every day.

The only reward was a perverse one: making connections with the clients on the phone. Numerous of them told me it was so good to finally speak to me, someone who seemed to understand what they were going through. Of course, every time I hung up the phone with them without setting a court date, the boss won another check mark in his books. Learning the logic of the law and conversing with Spanish-speakers was somewhat challenging, but the demoralizing ends erased any intellectual benefit I may have gained.

I felt an ambivalent mix of sympathy and contempt for my co-workers. They came to work in dress shoes and changed into slippers. They made small talk with clients to pass the time. One of my “teammates” had a sublime white Chicago south-side accent and talked about the Blackhawks at any opportunity. He ended his spiels on the phone by asking if the client had any “Comments, questions, philosophical inquiries?” My one friend was an improvising comedy performer who couldn’t wait to get out of there, and recognized my own antipathy to the place.

One Friday I called in sick, and the next Monday I told my team leader, Andrés, that I wouldn’t be back. He took it with such little surprise that it must have been a near-weekly occurrence. No bad feelings — in fact, they had recently rehired someone who walked out in the middle of a shift.