"Where have all the assistants gone?" The cry has gone up in the Lawyer's firm; dozens of lawyers bemoaning the modern age of choosy legal debutants.
If you're not careful you'll start believing there was once a golden age when firms were overflowing with them, all sitting around until 11 at night just for the chance of seeing a document filleted, or confirmed, or whatever they do to documents late at night.
Of course, there has always been a shortage of assistants; legal firms are far too mean to pay for more than one assistant if they can get them to work past midnight regularly; and besides, what happens when you get foals to run the Grand National? You have to shoot them. Assistants have always, historically, known so little that you don't actually want them outnumbering the people who know how to do the job.
Now there's a new multiplier to the assistant shortage, and that's because the girls are proving so much brighter than the boys. According to the gossip at one dinner party we held recently, men are much too stupid nowadays to be lawyers at all. They only ever held on by their fingertips anyway and now that the girls are storming out of the universities with terrifying degrees and gap years of experience as charity ops directors in war-torn countries, the chaps are plummeting down the cliff of unemployment without even a traineeship to cushion the fall.
That means the lawyers conducting the interviews have an historic chance to change the culture of legal firms for ever: instead, they're trying desperately not to hire too many women because everyone knows the first thing that women do once they've been with you for a couple of years is go off and get pregnant. Or find that some things are more valuable than spending every waking moment in an air-conditioned room. Of course, those are the ones who go off to work for the public sector, which means they cease to count, except as clients, so it's always worth keeping in touch with them and trying to remember the names of their babies. If you forget, try the names Josh or Katie; most children seem to be called this nowadays. Failing that, try the names of your own children - if you can remember them.
Worse than the breeders are the trader-uppers, who marry the boss. Where these assistants get off thinking that it's possible to leapfrog over your colleagues by sucking up to some short lawyer 20 years older than them: well… it's beyond me, and beyond most of the interviewers on the panel.
Pity them, for they are agonising over whether to choose the best man for the job, given that man has turned out to be a woman. Fortunately, would-be assistants have no power and, if turned down, will simply keep on applying until they land a job somewhere else. Or retrain as teachers.
There will soon, however, come a showdown when all those assistants will be of promotable age and demanding a place at the top table. Many will be women; they won't all have jumped ship, and they can't all go off and have babies - there aren't enough Pampers in the world to stem the flow of female assistants who will assault the top ranks of legal firms in a generation's time.
The Lawyer reckons he'll have retired before he has to see that sort of unseemly power struggle. I reckon it's coming sooner than he thinks.