I was twenty-seven years old, fresh out of law school, and a brand new associate at a decent-sized law firm. I had my own office, a secretary who I was scared to speak to, and a very, very clean desk because I knew how to do absolutely nothing except look young and nervous. I did not feel like a lawyer.
On about day two of this job, in the middle of HR paperwork, computer training and a super comforting lecture on lawyer malpractice, I went back to my empty office and checked my email.
From: RONALD COLLETT Subject: See Me.
I’d been there two days, but I knew that “See Me” was not good. Ronald Collett was a partner. And that asterisk by his name on the firm’s employee list? That meant he was a managing partner. Sweet Baby Jebus.
I opened the email.
I found that twenty minutes before, while I was learning that the firm could crumble if I didn’t save a pleading correctly, an email from my account had been sent to Mr. Ronald Collett. I stopped breathing.
From: Rebecca Smith Subject: You are…
Ohhhhh myyyyyy God.
It took me twenty panicked minutes to find his office. I went up and down stairs and around corners and met the copy center people before I realized this man worked about seven offices away from me.
I knocked on the open door. Ron Collett looked like a lawyer, but more casual. He was a white guy in his mid to late fifties with a receding hairline and a dark button-down shirt. Unlike mine, his desk was a disaster of papers and file folders and a random bottle of olive oil on the credenza.
He motioned for me to come in without saying a single word.
“Hi, I’m Rebecca. I did not send that email. I swear, I didn’t. I don’t know what happened, maybe my desktop is possessed, computer viruses are crazy, I don’t know, but I would never do that. But I will call IT, we will get to the bottom of this, I don’t really have anything to do anyway so I will handle this. I mean, I’m busy, but just paperwork busy. I’m sure I will get busier, I am not wasting time, sir, but I just want you to know I will take care of this.”
Breathe. A little more succinct this time, Becca.
“I did not send that email to you.”
He leaned back in his worn, burgundy leather chair and clasped his hands together at his stomach.
“Are you done?”
He was gruff and not friendly. I could also tell he was enjoying this. He had piercing blue eyes and I think they were laughing at me.
“Yes sir, I’m done.”
“Put a password on your email. We have people here who love to prank the youngsters.”
“Yes sir. That’s good to know.”
“Can you take a deposition for me on Tuesday?”
“I’m not licensed yet, Mr. Collett.”
“Well, what good are you then?”
“So far, I’m pretty good at getting lost in the hallways and saving documents incorrectly. And getting pranked.”
I think I detected a slight, slight smile, but he waved me out of his office the same way he waved me in, without a word.
I was about ten steps away and busy restoring oxygen to my brain when I heard him yell to his secretary, “WENDYYYYYY, get that girl back here.”
I turned around and looked at Wendy with fear in my eyes. She smiled as I made my way back.
He yelled from his office, “GET HER THE CHAMBERS FILE. She’s coming with me on Tuesday.”
Wendy handed me the file and said, “Now you have something to do.”
I walked away with a legal file and a deposition to attend, and I made it back to my office without getting lost. I did a happy dance behind my door and tried to hide my smile. I felt like a lawyer.
* * *
Over the next several years, I knocked at Ron Collett’s office more times than I can count.
Knock knock knock
“What do you want now?”
“I have this client, and I think he’s lying, and the carrier doesn’t know and the policy says this, and the expert says that, and the deposition is Wednesday and HELP.”
Ron always helped, without hesitation, every single time. Gruffly, littered with curse words and lots of head shaking, but he always made time.
He ended just about every conversation by saying, “You’re going to be fine,” with a dismissive wave of his hand as he turned around to face his computer monitor.
I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one knocking at his door. We were like a secret society, the needy mentees of Ron Collett, or R-Dub, as we called him. We had problems, he had solutions. We knocked, he answered. He saved many a new lawyer on many an occasion. His door was always open (even when he was on speaker phone, which frankly, would have been a great time for him to close his door).
He was really helpful, but let’s be clear – he remained cranky. There was the summer clerk party he hosted in July. It was 110 degrees, and he wouldn’t let us inside his house. Forty associates and summer law clerks sat in his backyard with barbecue sandwiches and tiki torches trying to fend off heat stroke. Ron laughed at us, mockingly told us to hang out as long as we wanted, and went inside to watch TV in his air-conditioned living room.
Or when his long-time secretary, Wendy, would ask him a question from her bay. He would yell “WHAAAAAT?” from his office like she was 40 miles away. When he finally heard the question, 90% of the time his answer was “I don’t give a GOD DAMN.”
But cranky or not, there are more than a few of us who have Ron Collett to thank for talking us off a ledge and making us better lawyers.
Years went by, I got married and adopted a son. I had left the firm, but my husband worked there and was a good friend of Ron’s.
A short time after we brought our son home, I got a message to my personal email address.
From: RONALD COLLETT Subject: Saturday
Your husband won’t answer his damn emails. My wife says we are coming to your house on Saturday whether you want us to or not. 7pm. She says we will eat before we come.
I wondered how in the hell I was going to entertain the Colletts in my home on two hours of sleep while managing a small, terrified child whose hobbies included biting, yelling and hitting. Thank God they didn’t want food because we had rice milk, mac and cheese and Cheerios. I grabbed a bottle of Scotch, put on some music and hoped for the best.
I didn’t need to worry because Ron wasn’t there to visit us. He walked in with a typically loud and cranky-sounding “HELLO,” and got right down to the serious business of playing wooden blocks with my son. He sat on my tile floor for over an hour, playing and talking and building. Ron Collett was a kid whisperer.
When he and his wife were walking out the door to leave, Ron dismissively waved his hand towards me and said, “You’re going to be fine.” I laughed. But I believed him. He had never been wrong before.
We’re really going to miss you, Ron. Godspeed and thank you.
In Very Fond Memory of Ron Collett.