Memories of office life: I was trapped in the longest, most anarchic meeting of my life | Life and style


I was sent to Brussels early in my ill-fated career as a City solicitor, to an office in a stunning Belle Époque building with a murky colonial past and beautiful stained-glass windows. It was thrillingly foreign, with office lunches that put Boots’ meal deals to shame and sparkling wine at the weekly “tea time”. I was delighted, but convinced it was a clerical error. Foreign postings were supposed to reward the best; I devoted most of my time and energy to evading work.

I was also irrationally terrified of the fabled “all-nighter”, a corporate law rite of passage. I think I believed that, gremlin-like, something terrible would happen if I was exposed to spreadsheets after midnight – I would reveal I didn’t actually understand them, perhaps. I had developed hacks to ensure this never happened: dodging notorious taskmasters, fibbing about my workload, and leaving my computer on when I went home.

This kind of subterfuge was impossible in Brussels. The antique tiles echoed when I tried to sneak out and I was sharing an office with my new boss, J, an ultra-ambitious workaholic. Shortly after arrival, I was caught muttering: “Fucking hell, Sharon,” on a call to a lawyer who made me stay late: I had to pretend I was swearing at the printer. I needed to step up and prove my after-hours mettle.

The opportunity arose rapidly. J said yes to yet another job – an urgent regulatory filing for a chemical manufacturer – and scheduled an all-day client meeting to finalise it with me, another junior lawyer and our brilliant paralegal. Usually, our clients were sleek and terrifying, like sharks, but these two, straight from a chemical plant in rural Germany, had a different vibe. They were as jolly as a two-man oompah band, and in no apparent hurry, firing off dubious jokes and asking for beers as we settled in to crunch the numbers.

We knew it would be a long meeting, but it was surreally, incomprehensibly long. We made no progress over the duration of several meals, many hours and many more spreadsheets, as every sentence or figure was chewed over by the double act. About 7pm, J had to leave to fly to another meeting, leaving the rest of us to wrap things up.

Without any “grownups” around, we were powerless to stop the chemical brothers from diving off on numerous tangents, changing their minds continuously and trying to type on our laptops with their arms around our shoulders. The hours spun out, shapeless and full of percentages I didn’t understand. Midnight came and went. At one point, the paralegal, undoubtedly the calmest and most competent woman I knew, walked out, quietly. Curious, I followed her. She was standing shaking with hysterical laughter in the corridor. I think that was the moment I finally relaxed and started to enjoy the absolute anarchy of it all. I had not gone gremlin: I was bewildered and resentful and had definitely messed up some exchange rate calculations, yes, but that was my normal state. Actually, it was getting so silly, it was almost … fun?

The meeting eventually fizzled out. We went home, exhausted and semi-hysterical, in the small hours; the chemical brothers ended up in a hotel that, they claimed gleefully, turned out to be a brothel. Months later, their boss complained about the bill and our “needless physical presence” at the meeting. J stood up for us all, even me and my dodgy exchange rates. Forged in the fire of our ridiculous nearly all-nighter, I was properly one of the team now.

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