Hug Your Researcher!

CHR’s Operations Manager, Phil Bryer, spent a week on the road in Massachusetts filling in for one of our in-court researchers. His “typical” day was anything but typical. Click to read about his experiences in the field.

Back in 2016, I had the unique experience of spending a week on the road filling in for one of our researchers while they were away. As an Operations Manager, I try to take advantage of every opportunity to get a better understanding of the day-to-day. Prior to this trip, I had accompanied researchers to courthouses in several different states, but always in the role of an observer. This was going to be different. Very different. I was on my own, training-wheels off, in one of the more notoriously challenging states in our industry; Massachusetts. What follows is a typical day in the life of a field researcher, from the perspective of an office dweller who normally spends their entire workday in a cozy center-city Philadelphia office. 

8 am: Starting at our satellite office to pick up my search lists and other assignments for the day. I had been advised to wait for rush hour traffic to subside before getting on the road. The courthouse is 45 minutes away, but it can easily turn into an hour and a half if you get caught in the morning commute.

9:30 am: Faux pas #1, I should have listened and not left at 8:15. I’m just now in the vicinity of my first courthouse. No lots. Looking for parking.

9:40 am: Still looking for parking.

9:50 am: Arrive at the courthouse. Faux pas #2, no cellphone’s allowed. Back to the car.

10:00 am: Finally ready to start searching. I start with the Superior Courts that are available on the computer terminal located in the probate office of this particular court, right at the clerk’s counter. A very irate woman next to me does not know her case number to provide to the clerk, and insists that she can be helped without it (she can’t). I haven’t heard language like that at 10 AM since watching Jerry Springer while on summer vacation in middle school. I stop in the middle of my searches to help her look up her docket number. Judging by the clerk’s calm demeanor this is not a rare occurrence.

10:20 am: Computers freeze and restart. ::sigh::

11:00 am: Finished with searching Superior Court, I head across the hall to search the district court in the index books. I appear to be late to the party, as there are 2 other researchers already rifling through the poorly-bound, yet thankfully laminated binders. The books are divided into years. The number of years vary from court to court (sometimes 1 year per book, sometimes 10). Mercifully, there are only 3 sets of books at this court, meaning 1 name will have to be searched up to 3 times depending on its scope. Whether it was ‘researcher camaraderie’ or pity for the new guy, we begin trading books back and forth until I completed all of my searches.

12:15 pm: I turn my list of record requests into the clerk, who informs me that I should have them “in a few days”. Knowing the record turn-around in this court all I could think was, “I suppose 10 could be considered ‘a few’ ”. On to the next courthouse….

1:00 pm: I reach my next destination, but not before accidentally getting on and off the highway twice. My GPS is no match for MA’s ever-changing roadwork schedule.

1:05 pm: Past security (phone in-hand, go figure) and headed straight for the index books. Conspicuous by their absence in this book are names beginning with the letter “D”. I don’t know if a page fell out, or if someone successfully “expunged” their own record from public view. Either way, I now have an added trip to the counter so that the can clerk assist me with the three “D names” on my list. 

1:30 pm: No clerk at the counter. I wait.

1:35 pm: A clerk appears from the back room. Apparently, this clerk cannot help me. The clerk who can assist me will be back from lunch shortly. Again, I wait.

1:45 pm: After rolling her eyes at me so hard that she could probably see her own brain, the second clerk acquiesced and checked on the three names that I could not look up in the index books. She seemed unfazed when I informed her that the page had gone missing. I got the impression that it will not be replaced in the immediate future. Time to head back to the office….

2:30 pm: Unlike this morning, I did heed the warning of our own experienced researcher to not get caught in the afternoon rush hour, which could prevent my results from being returned in time for our team to process them before day’s end. Well, the best-laid plans often go awry when a 4-car accident on Route 3 has you grid-locked, so here I sit.

3:30 pm: Finally back at the office to distribute my results. Over 3 1/2  hours of my day has been spent in a car, and it only just occurred to me now that I haven’t even had time to eat lunch. It’s at this moment that I have an epiphany. Our previous challenges with finding the right people to fill this role came down to one major issue: poor time-management.

4:15 pm: Day one is officially in the books. Today’s court run was both humbling and enlightening, and I can’t wait to go home.

 My biggest takeaway from this week of being on the road was that the job itself is not the challenge. It’s the never-ending obstacle course that the researcher has to navigate in order to do that job efficiently. On any given day you have to balance traffic, weather (I lucked out while I was there in September), technical issues, outdated or damaged reference materials, belligerent court-goers, more traffic, frustrated clerks, dilapidated buildings, and traffic. You can’t take work home with you. You can’t stay late. Everything must be done within the operating hours of 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. It’s a nonstop juggling act, and our experience has shown that it takes a special kind of person to keep all of the balls in the air.

A good researcher is a precious commodity that should never go unappreciated. Send them holiday baskets, buy their coffee, but whatever you do, don’t call me when they’re away.

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