The day chugged along at an agonising crawl. Law isn't nearly as glamorous as it appears on television. Behind every dramatic hour in court there are hundreds of hours of paperwork.
At six o'clock, an office wide email went out calling everyone to the upstairs boardroom. We always hosted our gatherings in-house. For a company the size of Little Bell, appearances were everything, and we'd spent a lot of money making sure we could entertain with the best of them. With the tables cleared away, the band in place, and the bar and canapés laid out, the whole place had the classy but vaguely sterile feel of an expensive wedding reception.
Most of my colleagues were already there when I arrived. Seeing everyone standing together in one place really emphasised the gender imbalance in the company. There were jackets and ties as far as the eye could see. We had a few women on every floor, and a couple had even made it to the lofty ranks of Partner, but the firm was still very much entrenched in the old way of doing things.
Despite my earlier reservations, I decided I couldn't get through the evening without a least one drink, so I snagged a glass of champagne on its way past and then set out in search of a friendly face.
"You made it!" Elle said, as I found her at the other end of the bar. She was chatting to one of the new junior associates, a friendly young guy named Miles.
"You sound surprised," I replied.
"Well, this morning you did look a little like you might keel over at your desk."
"What, and miss all this?" I asked, gesturing dramatically to the room.
"It does have a certain... unique charm," Miles said, wearing a bemused smile.
"First time?" I asked.
"You're working under Alan right?"
He nodded again.
Elle and I shared an eye roll. "Has he taken you to run the executive gauntlet yet?" she asked
"I don't think so," he replied.
"Well, don't worry, he will," I said. "He likes to start grooming his flock early."
He gave a nervous little laugh. "I'm not sure I like the idea of being groomed."
"Me either," I replied. "Certainly helps if you want an actual career though."
His brow furrowed. "What do you mean by that?"
I gazed at him for several seconds, my tongue poised on my lips, before shaking my head. I didn't have the energy for a rant right now. Besides, he'd see soon enough. "Never mind. Forget I said anything."
"No, hang on," he persisted, "you can't make a comment like that and then just let it go."
Elle had been watching the exchange with a mixture of amusement and resignation. She understood. She was in the same boat as me. "What she means is, this place is very cliquey. You get in with the right people early, you're set."
He filled in the obvious blank. "And if you don't?"
Elle shot me a glance and raised her eyebrows.
I sighed. "Then expect to be shovelling shit for quite a few years."
He chewed the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. "How long have you two been here?"
"Six years for me, five for Elle," I replied.
"And you're both still juniors?" he asked.
"Fuck. I take it that's not normal?"
I shrugged. "Depends on your definition of normal. If you don't kiss the right asses then yeah, that's pretty much the way it goes."
"Speaking of ass kissing, have you met the office's resident brown nosing queen yet, Miles?" Elle asked, nodding to the woman who was approaching us from across the room.
"Can't say that I've had the pleasure," he replied.
I grimaced. "Well it looks like you're about to get your chance."
There was nobody in the office I disliked more than Jennifer Smart. The two of us had started at Little Bell around the same time, and from day one, we'd seemed destined to be rivals. Everything about her rubbed me the wrong way, and although she was as sweet as honey to my face, I knew the feeling was mutual. I'd assumed my eighty hour weeks and pristine work would trump her grovelling, but apparently I'd been mistaken. Two years ago she'd made Senior Associate, while I was still stuck shuffling paper. It was a victory she savoured to this day.
"Sophia!" she said, flashing me a perfect beauty pageant smile. She had her fake nice act down to a fine art, but truth be told, I still didn't understand why so many people were fooled. There was something inherently unpleasant behind those angular features, a callousness that no amount of phony warmth could hide.
"I was wondering if you'd be here," she continued. "I know you don't much care for these little gatherings."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Jennifer," I replied, forcing myself to sound vaguely polite.
"Well good. It's good to keep in touch with our clients, don't you think? Speaking of which," she nodded at the older gentleman standing next to her, "this is Mr Chardy. He's the head of development at Marvin Lemac. We've been handling their fraud case."
I gritted my teeth. She had the most frustrating habit of making out that nobody else knew what was going on around the office except her. "I know who you are," I said to him, holding out my hand. "I'm Sophia Pearce. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The others introduced themselves.
"Sophia, Elle, and Miles here are all part of our junior associate team," Jennifer continued. "I know when you meet with us it might seem like it's just me or Alan handling your case, but we really couldn't do what we do without these guys. They're the ones doing all the grunt work."
"Well you've done an excellent job so far," Chardy said.
I nodded in thanks, not trusting myself to speak. Backhanded compliments were Jennifer's speciality.
She glanced around the room. "Well anyway, it's been lovely chatting to you, but I want to introduce Joseph here to a few more people. You know how it is; so many Partners, so little time. Have a good night."
Taking his arm she led him off into the crowd.
"Well, she didn't seem that bad," Miles said, when she was out of earshot.
"Are you kidding?" Elle replied. "That smile was so sweet I think I threw up a little in my mouth."
"Have either of you actually done any work on the Marvin Lemac case?" I asked. They both shook their heads. "Exactly. She didn't need to introduce him at all. It was just another excuse to gloat." I threw back the rest of my champagne in a single long sip. "Fucking 'grunt work' indeed. I could strangle that bitch."