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No sugar in my coffee, actually no coffee at all: Michelle De Leon ’20 Legal Assistant at Phillip Brigham in Chicago

No sugar in my coffee, actually no coffee at all.

After six years of travel and relocating to two states and five different countries, I never saw myself becoming susceptible to culture shock in the midwest. But working as a legal assistant for Antioch Alum Phillip Brigham has proven otherwise. What I mean to say is this: for someone who has never had 1) an interest in studying law and 2) any office experience, I signed up to do something knowingly new and challenging. I don’t regret it at all.

The first time I visited in Chicago was in August of 2017. It was the weekend the Charlottesville protests happened. I remember walking into a bar serving happy hour prices to meet a longtime friend in Rogers Park. It took a couple of minutes before we, and everyone else, faced two flat screens displaying live coverage of the violence that broke out. Weirdly enough, I was relieved to be in a big city during a personal and historical time of disillusionment. In some ways, the five days I spent in Chicago evoked a patience for personal and political growth. I returned to Antioch in the haze of rust belt humidity on a sunday afternoon with four other students, dosing in and out of a mid-quarter crisis, entertaining my next big move.

When the time came to apply for jobs, I was so sure about moving to Chicago that I only applied to work as a legal assistant. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never had an office job nor did I own any work attire. The closest I’ve come to bringing any decent court-appearance outfit to life is wearing a beige faux-suede tommy hilfiger blazer, a white cotton turtleneck, and chunky black platforms with tassels. Aware of how people might not even look twice at my outfit when they are already staring at my siren red pixie cut/ nose ring combo. On the first day on the job, I photocopied god knows how many bank statements and uploaded them to smokeball, a very popular software among lawyers that organizes and shares legal files. I went through hundreds of text messages, googled spanish internet slang, and decided whether or not there was something more to them than I previously thought. It was tedious, it was thrilling, and it felt important. Telling my family and friends that I was working for a lawyer was both surreal and rewarding. But the next morning, I woke up worried about what important “somebodies”would think about my clothing in court, or how I would keep up with the constant responsibility to complete tasks with little experience in a legally bound high paying service industry. I put on the outfit I bought at Macy’s for my second day at work and looked at myself in the mirror. Instead of feeling like Dana Scully’s semi-casual sister, I asked myself, “Is this the best you can do? How do you expect to hide that you’re inexperienced.” Drowsy and insecure, I bought a coffee to power through a mid day dip.
That was a bad idea, it all felt like a bad idea. Moving to a big city was a bad idea, working in an office was a bad idea.

There aren’t that many things that make me anxious like coffee does. It took less than hour for me to feel my heart in my throat and tears in the corner of my eyes. This is when I decided to go on my first and only hour lunch break. I walked into a barnes and noble cafe, bought some quick eats and did the best thing I could think of. I called my mom.

I think she’s used to it. I think she’s used to me living in different places every six months. I think she’s used to me working for very rich people, the same people she cleans houses for. My mom has heard me call myself inadequate plenty times before and this was no different.

I apologized to her for not appreciating the sacrifices she made when she moved to the US from Guatemala thirty years ago. I told her that I was afraid of failing others. And that’s when she stopped me and said “ jamás te olvides de tu meta, enfócate en tu meta y lograras el conocimiento y experiencia que necesitas.” Never forget your goal, focus on your goal and you will achieve the knowledge and experience you need. She’s said this to me before and it won’t be the last time she reminds me that despite the many odds against me, focusing on my personal efforts will get me to where I need to be. She reminded me that I was exactly where I needed to be doing exactly what I needed to do. I don’t really care how cheesy it sounds, this really is how I was able to wipe away my tears, take several sips of sparkling water, return to work, and enjoy my first friday in the city.

Now here I am, week seven, Tuesday night with a brewski and listening to a tape recording my boss made for Anti-Watt (student run radio station) in 1994. I’ve continued to better my spanish through translating documents, meet judges in their chambers, and prepare proposals for clients. Along the way I’ve made some friends, learned about law in Illinois, had a couple of weird tinder dates, and other things that you just don’t write in a blog post… oh and no sugar in my coffee please, actually no coffee at all.

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Michelle is a multi-lingual self-design student focusing on Anthropology, Linguistics, Philosophy, and Post-Colonial Theory. They currently reside in Chicago where they work as a legal assistant.

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