How do I ask an attorney to clean up after herself?
July 22, 2019 11:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm an office manager. One of the attorneys at my office held a client meeting in our Legal Director's office and their client left a small chocolate stain on the couch. How do I get her to clean it up?

I'm the office manager at a smallish legal aid nonprofit (two dozen employees). The Legal Director is currently on sabbatical, and one of the attorneys used the LD's office to meet with clients, including the clients’ children. There's a bowl of chocolates on the LD's desk, and a few days after the meeting, two members of the legal support staff noticed chocolate smeared on the LD’s couch. Both staffers have a clear view of the LD’s office and no one else used the room during that time.

They reported the stain to me. My first instinct was to speak with the attorney who hosted the meeting, but she was about to go into hearing. Hearings are a stressful and busy time, and the attorneys tend to ignore everything that's not hearing-related while prepping for them, so I waited until it was over. But now I’m not sure how to proceed: I still think the attorney should clean up. The LD's sabbatical ends in September and the legal staff think she'll notice the stain when she comes back. I thought I could speak to the attorney after hearing, but now I'm feeling super avoidant and anxious. Please help.

I think it's reasonable to expect people to clean up after themselves (even attorneys), especially because this was totally avoidable; we have conference rooms with non-porous surfaces. And we're all adults, right? This particular attorney has been oblivious in the past to the impact of what they do (or don't do), e.g., microwaving fish or planning exhibits so that staff have to perform time-consuming redos or waiting until 5:30 PM on Friday to flag me down for something they could have requested an hour before.

How do I approach the attorney so that she takes responsibility for her clients' mess? Should I ask face-to-face? Should I send an email? Should I loop in the Executive Director? Or should I just pretend I never heard about this and wait for the LD to discover it on her return? It's two small spots, but on a brand-new sofa.

If the attorney doesn't want to clean it up, she'll go to the acting head attorney, who will go to the Executive Director, who will probably have me or one of the other support staff clean it up. I resent the hell out of this possibility. This isn't a common area. (In which case I might clean it up and just politely ask the offender to be more careful in the future.) I also think it would be shitty to make the legal support staff clean this up, because it's not comparable to, say, asking them to collect and refile client papers after a messy meeting. It's not just about a few smears of chocolate on the couch. This is about a failure to recognize and honor the social compact that makes office life possible. Especially nonprofit life, because we're all chronically overextended and it's hella disrespectful to leave messes for other people to clean up, especially preventable messes in non-common areas.

I'm open to comments from everyone, but would especially appreciate comments from folks who have worked in law offices and are familiar with the way some attorneys try to be protected by the rules but not bound by them. (Fun fact: in almost every law office I've worked in, deadlines are for Other People.)

I also realize the anxiety I'm feeling about this fairly low-stakes, small stain is symptomatic of other stresses, but mustering the will to make Kaiser connect me to a therapist is a whole 'nother Ask. Please be kind.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? to Work & Money (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

If the attorney doesn't want to clean it up, she'll go to the acting head attorney, who will go to the Executive Director, who will probably have me or one of the other support staff clean it up.

I totally get the frustration and even rage you must be feeling about this. I wonder if asking the question has helped with the process, because what you've typed above, I think in your heart, is what you know will happen if you raise this up.

It's not fair, it's not right, but unless your practice is different to every other legal environment I've been in, there is just no way in hell a lawyer, esp a court lawyer, will clean up a mess like this.

All the lawyers I've worked with view their jobs as lawyering and everything else as someone else's job, rightfully or wrongly. And that's a culture that firms and practices largely endorse.

Is there a dry cleaner near your office? Run it down there mid afternoon and see what they say. After that, stop in at a cafe and grab a cup of tea or whatever and just savour it. Take your time.

You work in a tough environment, and it has lots of frustrations. I think it's valuable to recognise those frustrations, pick your battles, and treat yourself with kindness.

In this case, I think that means cleaning up the chocolate in a low key, chillaxed manner. The forget about it, never think about it again.

I think getting it out of your head as quickly as possible will deliver you more peace of mind than making it a battle ever will. It will be faster, less stressful, and sidesteps a conclusion you already know is inevitable and will demoralise and stress you further.

Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 11:40 PM on July 22, 2019 [29 favorites]

I have worked in attorney's offices, and also was a secretary and administrative assistant for many years.

If possible, I would hire a cleaning service to come in and clean the couch. Then I pull the attorney aside, and ask them to be mindful of small children and their messes in the future. Then I would put the chocolate out of reach while the person whose office it is is away.

Accidents happen. Perhaps this person is oblivious, but I've found it difficult to control other people's behavior. I've had to clean up meeting rooms after people brought in their paper coffee cups and left them on the floor afterward, not even bothering to toss them in a very visible trash can. I really resented the expectation that I, a person who had worked tirelessly to support these grown men and women, should now be their maid. I did mention it to the VP in charge, but was curtly told off. A co-worker pulled me aside and took me and a few other support staff to lunch, and my boss told me to take the rest of the day off as a reward for working so hard to prepare for that big meeting. Most people do appreciate their support staff, and I know how easy it is for one person to create a lot more work for the staff than all the others combined.

If it's not possible to hire a cleaning service, I would clean it myself, and let the attorney know, and then if the response is less than apologetic, I would then approach his/her supervisor, and let them deal with it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:43 PM on July 22, 2019 [11 favorites]

I don't think a chocolate stain on a couch is the same as wiping up spilled coffee off a counter. This is going to require professional cleaning and as the office manager you're the one who takes care of that. I'm sorry to say as you do sound extremely stressed. Not taking care of this in any way could jeopardize your job. Is it really worth it?
posted by bleep at 12:05 AM on July 23, 2019 [20 favorites]

It's not just about a few smears of chocolate on the couch. This is about a failure to recognize and honor the social compact that makes office life possible. Especially nonprofit life, because we're all chronically overextended and it's hella disrespectful to leave messes for other people to clean up, especially preventable messes in non-common areas.

Your stress is obvious here and I empathize but I would suggest it isn't helping your stress to see it this way. To you, the office manager, the chocolate stain is about this dynamic. But this isn't a marriage; the office isn't a communal living situation. You don't know what was important in the moment, when the attorney decided to take the client in there, and not to interrupt whatever was going on to talk about children eating chocolate instead of whatever they were talking about. It is very possible that her decision to focus entirely on whatever was going on in the conversation with her client really was paramount. And it's a law office, not a home; the couch is there to support the work being done. I think of an office manager as someone who supports the legal work by making sure everything else runs smoothly. I would try to separate your resentment, which seems to be about the lawyer thinking she's "above" menial tasks, understand that she's overworked too, and get the cleaner in there without malice because in this situation that's how you can best support whatever nonprofit, good legal work was going on with that family. Let the rest of it from the quote above go. Unfortunately, in offices with hierarchies, there just isn't the same kind of social compact to make office life communal that might be ideal.
posted by nantucket at 12:52 AM on July 23, 2019 [41 favorites]

Gently, you are putting a lot of meaning onto stains that the lawyer may not even have noticed. It's something we all do, but then it leads to us writing seven paragraphs of ear-steaming about a chocolate stain, and while the frustration is very real, it takes us further away from any possibility of non-screaming resolutions.

If your organization has clients in regularly, especially with their children, you must have some expectation of who cleans up after meetings. Whoever that is, that's what would seem to apply here, regardless of whether the meeting happened in a common area or not.

And then you can watch Microwaving fish at work is a personality defect.
posted by praemunire at 1:29 AM on July 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

Getting chocolate stains off a couch seems like a professional cleaning problem, if it’s not so small that it wouldn’t make sense for you to be upset about it at all. Do you think you might be just at the ‘bitch eating crackers’ point with this lawyer?

There is also a thing you’ve said — if you escalate this, you expect the Executive Director to make you clean it up. At that point, is it possible that in the eyes of the organization you work for, this sort of minor cleaning/restoring order after meetings is part of your job? I can see it being frustrating if you think people are inconsiderately making more work for you than they need to, but if it’s within the scope of what your supervisors expect you to do at work, that’s what your job is.
posted by LizardBreath at 4:14 AM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

You need support for your feelings.

One thing you can do is delegate it to someone else, such as a cleaner. As office manager you also have to ensure that other maintenance issues are looked after. Can you reframe this situation as one of those, where it's not a matter of your being stuck unnecessarily and disrespectfully with scutwork but as part of your job to assign to a cleaning person?

If not, if you are going to have to be the one blotting with paper towel, then you need to rebalance the scales of justice. That means you need something good and supportive to happen in equal measure or more than the being taken advantage of event. It is highly unlikely that you can gently steer it so that the attorney does something for you, although taking her up on her offer sponsoring you in your 5K charity run or something similar could do it. In that case you need to be the one rewarding and approving of you. Think of something you want and would normally not allow yourself to have, slightly higher in value than the time and effort of cleaning the couch, something like going to the extra nice take out place, or buying yourself that book, or taking most of the morning on the couch at home to do that frivolous thing, and gift yourself that.

Temporarily remove the chocolate from the LD's desk and put it in the desk out of sight. And when she comes back, ask her if it would be possible for her only to stock non-melting items in the free-to-take dish, on account of an incident involving children and the upholstery.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:42 AM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Maybe it's because I'm also a lawyer (though not a practicing one) or because I'm just a bad person, but of all the people you describe, the person whose job it most seems to be to clean this mess up is ... you.

If the lawyer had made the chocolate stains personally or deliberately, then sure, that would be breaking the social contract. But the children of clients made them -- quite probably without the lawyer even knowing about them. That is an office problem. Does the office have cleaning staff? Then they should be asked if it's something they can take care of -- though they may not be able to and/or it may not be in their contract to do so. Or a professional service could be brought in (or the cushions taken out, if that's plausible). Otherwise, an office manager / admin assistant / whoever is normally tasked with keeping things in the office neat and tidy should be responsible.

I work in government and it annoys the crap out of me that our cleaning contracts don't cover cleaning the kitchenettes (inside fridges, appliances etc). People will clean up big significant messes if they explode something in the microwave or similar, but tiny messes also accumulate so it always ends up falling to whichever employees -- usually women, usually admin staff -- are willing to do it, or get fed up with the mess first. But that's a systemic problem -- that the government won't pay the people we pay to clean things to clean those things, even though they clearly need to be cleaned on the regular -- not a problem with any specific individual failing to clean.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:56 AM on July 23, 2019 [22 favorites]

Who organises cleaning staff? Is it the lawyer? In that case, it’s on them to arrange it to be fixed. But if that’s a task that usually falls to the office manager, it’s something you should handle this time too, and if you bring it up to them, chances are they’ll just ask you to do it anyway and not understand what the fuss is. It sounds like you’re thinking you’ll physically have to clean it yourself when likely it needs professional cleaning and the most you’ll have to do is organise for someone to come in. Breathe. I don’t think this is really about a stain. This sounds like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
posted by Jubey at 5:33 AM on July 23, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm also a lawyer. I was struck by the idea that these are 'her' clients and therefore their mess is her responsibility. I would have thought they are the non-profit's clients. She's not running a private practice. That makes me think that the culture of your legal non-profit is different from the legal clinic I worked with as a student (or the government office I work in now). Based on my experience, if I were this lawyer, I would not expect to be treated as if I made the mess. However, I would think it totally reasonable to be told (nicely) about the stain and have it suggested that whenever possible, meetings that involve children are better in the conference rooms if available. I would expect that the stain would be taken care of by the office staff who take care of the office because I didn't make the stain, our clients did.

Some of the issues you've raised about not being more considerate about support staff time are very common in legal offices, and I'm sure I've been guilty of it too. It is something that can be worked on, though. I mean, there will always be last minute things, and that's part of the job, but I believe a culture of appreciation can go a long way. We celebrate administrative staff day in our office, and have monthly shout-outs in our director's office updates that enable anyone to give a public praising to a staff person who went above and beyond. Maybe this lawyer will be able to better see the extra help she gets if there's a regular forum where these things are highlighted. Maybe one day she'll even give someone a's hoping.

As a side note, I would love it if our office manager put up a kitchen etiquette sign or poster to remind people to avoid microwaving anything that gives a strong odor (including popcorn damn it unless you are going to make some for me too lol). There used to be one in the last office I worked in and I think it helped make people more mindful of each other.
posted by girlpublisher at 5:47 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm an executive assistant, the de facto office manager in an office full of people making much more money than I do, and I 100% feel your pain. This level of obliviousness is common and infuriating. Someone in my office pours his tea leaves all over the kitchen sink and just leaves them there, because... why?? I don't know. People are animals, truly.

I think if this attorney had approached you right afterward and said, "I'm so sorry about this, but my client got chocolate on the couch - can you organize a cleaner to come in and fix it?" you would probably feel better, right? I would, anyway. It's the leaving it, wordlessly, waiting for someone (i.e., you) to discover it and fix it as a matter of course, that sets my teeth on edge.

So, anyway, if I were you I'd find an upholstery cleaner to come and clean it up, and then I'd ask the attorney to please let you know immediately if something like this happens in the future so you can take care of it. In the absence of a full time cleaning or maintenance person, responsibility for this sort of thing does fall into your area moreso than an attorney's. I'm sorry and it sucks and there is no doubt dealing with this sort of dismissive inconsiderate behavior is the worst part of my job.
posted by something something at 5:52 AM on July 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

Emotional issues and office politics issues already seem to be well covered, so just a practical suggestion;

We get our couches (and, fwiw though irrelevant here, our mattresses) cleaned by the same company that cleans our carpet. If carpet cleaning is already a part of your maintenance contract you can have the cleaning company schedule to do this couch. If not it will cost in the vicinity of $200 to have a carpet cleaning company come in for the couch. You can mention it to the ED when you get the sign-off for extra expense. ED can decide if they want to make the lawyer do anything about this specific incident, though I very much doubt that will happen, it will likely just be seen as a cost of doing business.

I totally get where you're coming from though. Good manners are part of the social contract.
posted by vignettist at 6:00 AM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've been an executive assistant and office manager for the majority of my adult life.

Something something has it. The cold hard facts are that this kind of thing is what your role as an office manager is for. The reason why the very job of office manager exists is so that the lawyers in your office are free to do the lawyering, and someone else is on hand to worry about the distracting stuff that distracts them from lawyering. To put it bluntly - you are being paid to worry about cleaning stains off the sofa.

Yes, it sucks sometimes. It sucks rocks. But that's also your exact job description, so asking the lawyer to clean it up is going to be like if she asked you to research changes in housing codes in your jurisdiction since 1982.

Look up "how to clean chocolate stains off a couch" online, tell your boss that you're going to order the special cleaning stuff that gets recommended and why, move the chocolate out of that conference room and call it a day.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:42 AM on July 23, 2019 [14 favorites]

Oh, if it helps you mentally deescalate any, consider that, while the lawyer may or may not care about her relationship with you, she almost certainly does about the one with her boss, and so, if she'd actually noticed the clients had left a stain on her boss's couch, she wouldn't have just ignored it. It's not my job to clean upholstery, but if someone I'd met with in my boss's absence had stained her couch, I would certainly at least have spoken (apologetically) to maintenance about it to make sure my boss didn't end up coming back to it!
posted by praemunire at 8:11 AM on July 23, 2019

I think others have covered a lot of what I’d say, but one more thing I want to mention, as a lawyer who has had to meet with clients with children in-office: there are excellent reasons for NOT bringing young children into conference rooms, which are often imposing spaces with lots of dangerously-accessible swivel chairs, and I would choose a smaller room with a couch over one 9 times out of 10. None of this may have been in the attorney’s mind, but I want to mention it because “why didn’t she just use the conference room in the first instance?” seems to be part of the strong reaction you’re having (and might have a bearing on any requests you make for the future).
posted by LadyInWaiting at 8:14 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Adding an apology for sounding so harsh in my comment; that was not the intent, but I am looking at what i wrote and it's coming off as way meaner than I thought I was.

The facts stand, though; taking care of this kind of stuff is your job description, not the lawyers', and so that's part of why your trying to convince her to clean it is probably not really going to go well. I'm afraid that you're still going to end up getting stuck with cleaning this, because....well, taking care of the office is what an office manager's role is.

She could have handled communicating the situation to you better, and she could have handled the meeting better. That's for sure. But making sure it gets clean is ultimately going to end up on your plate no matter what, because that's what you're there for. The most you can do otherwise is to quietly send out a general reminder to all to be aware of spills in that room, or start a "no food in that room" policy or something. But you are either going to end up cleaning the couch or paying a cleaner to do it, I'm afraid. She won't, unless she somehow miraculously offers and insists upon doing so, and I don't hold out much hope for that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:16 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it's reasonable to expect people to clean up after themselves (even attorneys)

I don't get this. Who normally cleans your offices? Don't you have a cleaning service or other staff assigned to this function? Otherwise who is emptying the trash cans, vacuuming the rugs, wiping down the desks and tables, cleaning out the microwave and so on? It is the responsibility of whomever performs that function to clean up messes.

The kind of "cleaning up after themselves" it is reasonable to expect from all employees at all levels is things like throwing away your half-eaten slice of pizza rather than walking away and leaving it on the lunch room table, or mopping up most of a spilled cup of coffee before calling the maintenance staff. Even with things like that, if an attorney has a lunch meeting in a conference room with a client, it is normally the responsibility of staff, not the attorney, to clean up the conference room afterwards.

For something like a chocolate stain on a sofa, what is it that you think should happen here? Does it strike you as reasonable or realistic to expect that the attorney is going to source cleaning products and spend however long personally treating the stain on the sofa? I get it that staff can be resentful of having to do things like this, and it may be the case that more of this sort of thing rolls downhill onto the staff at a small legal aid nonprofit. But that's the gig. Regular maintenance of the office and cleaning up things that are within the bounds of reasonable use are not the attorneys' jobs. The person whose job responsibility would appear to be making sure the office stays clean is you, the office manager. If you don't have a regular cleaning service you can task with treating the stain, you can either hire someone to treat the stain, delegate it to a member of the staff whose job responsibilities encompass this sort of thing, or do it yourself. I work for a biglaw firm with personnel of a few hundred in our NYC office, and even though we have dedicated maintenance and cleaning staff from both the firm and the building, the office managers still sometimes get their hands dirty. That's the gig.
posted by slkinsey at 8:19 AM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

To re-direct from slkinsey a bit - who makes a good point:

I think it is within an office manager's rights to ask a staff to "stop leaving your coffee cups around the board room" or "make sure you take the sandwich wrappers with you after a lunch-and-learn" or whatever, or to ask people to actually throw their half-eaten sandwiches out in the kitchen instead of leaving them in desk drawers or whatever ungodly sins you might uncover. You're not gonna get 100% compliance, so you're still going to occasionally have to do it, but that is something you can at least ask an attorney to do directly.

But asking them to actually physically clean off the couch or hire a service to do it, that's not gonna happen. That's on you, in your role as office manager.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:24 AM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry you're frustrated, but this is one of those costs of doing business. Put concisely, your domain is service, not enforcement, and corporate passive voice is the expected way to solve this problem. Get a quote for cleaning from either the service you already use (if they can do it properly) or whatever carpet/upholstery cleaning service comes recommended in your area. Before you approve the quote, go to the ED (or whoever approves unusual expenses) and say "there's a new stain on the couch in so-and-so's office that we should clean up before they return. It will cost $X to clean up." Don't try to clean it yourself. Don't apportion blame unless they ask how it happened. Let the expense be their problem to deal with or ignore. Even trying to get a heads up from an attorney for the next stain is perhaps too much to ask for your pay grade.
posted by fedward at 9:31 AM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

You are the office manager, not the office cleaner. Get a quote to clean the sofa, provide it to the person who funds the office, and let them deal with the cost. If you feel like preventing this from happening again, print a sign that says "No food or drinks on the sofa" and do your best to enforce that.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:52 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you feel like preventing this from happening again, print a sign that says "No food or drinks on the sofa" and do your best to enforce that.

That's probably not going to fly in the office of one of the bosses.
posted by praemunire at 9:58 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

That's probably not going to fly in the office of one of the bosses.
Probably not, but then again one of the bosses is responsible for the budget and they may also be angry at some one wrecking their new couch and bearing the cleaning costs, so who knows?
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:26 AM on July 23, 2019

If you feel like preventing this from happening again, print a sign that says "No food or drinks on the sofa" and do your best to enforce that.

Changing the rules for adults because of the actions of some children seems unreasonable to me.
posted by FencingGal at 10:54 AM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thanks everyone. I'm going to price out a cleaning service. That option hadn't even occurred to me.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 11:06 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

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