Forty Years and Still Smiling
An Interview with Jennifer Comages
For almost half of the time the CCCBA has been around, members and staff have had the pleasure of working with one consistent employee, Mrs. Jennifer Comages, who is now CCCBA’s Membership Director. She celebrated her 40th anniversary in May in the CCCBA’s 85th year. Jennifer joined the bar association as a young girl. She got married while working here, had three children and continues with her friendly demeanor, professional work ethic and careful attention to detail.
Back in 1979, a friend from church happened to mention that her office was looking for someone to work part time and answer the phones. Jennifer, who was still in school, applied for the job at the CCCBA answering calls to the Lawyer Referral & Information Service (LRIS).
She remembers going home after work that first week and telling her mother, “I don’t think I can do this!” Her mother told her, “Honey you’ve got to give it more time. It will be fine.” And her mother was certainly right.
In those days, the CCCBA had just merged with the Mt. Diablo Bar Association and the West Contra Costa Bar and had approximately 250 members. About half of them were members of the LRIS. The system of referring attorneys to potential clients used boxes of cards – one box for each attorney specializing in a particular practice area. For example, if the caller needed a family law attorney, Jennifer would take the Family Law card box and assign the attorney on the top card to the caller. She wrote down the name of the client, the date and time of the appointment and then moved that card to the back of the box.
Jennifer said she learned to use the office machines of the day: the mimeograph machine, the stenograph machine, the addressograph and the Telex machine.
After just one month on the job, her friend from church wanted to switch from full time to part time, so Jennifer started working full time for the CCCBA.
The Other Side of the Law
About a month later, a call that Jennifer will never forget came in from the public defender’s office. Apparently, a disgruntled individual was mad at the PD and the world. He said he was going straight to the bar office to get even.
Not understanding the situation and not wanting to put her new job in jeopardy, Jennifer went back to work. Then a call came in from the Walnut Creek Police telling her that they were on their way to handle things. They advised Jennifer to lock the door and not to answer it if anyone knocked. Her co-worker Bea, who was in her 80s, got worried and very upset. She said they should close the office and leave. Their boss, Lillian, was not in the office that day, and with just two months on the job, Jennifer didn’t think they had the authority to close up early.
They decided to call the President of the Bar and ask what they should do. He said, “Get the heck out of there, and now!”
“That’s the only time in the last 40 years that I felt threatened,” she said.
A Happy Surprise
Jennifer recalled another time a little more than two years after she joined the Bar. The President of the Bar, Bill Gagen, wanted to see her. She was getting ready to go on vacation the next day, but nervously, she sat down with him. “I thought I was going to be fired,” she said.
He said, “I think it’s just terrible… that you have not been given a raise in two and a half years. Shame on us.” And with that he handed her a check. “I was so surprised, I burst into tears – happy tears,” she said. “That was the first and last time I cried in front of the President of the Bar.”
Over the years Jennifer and the CCCBA have occupied five offices. Jennifer started in Walnut Creek on Olympic Boulevard and moved after a few months to Martinez then to Concord then back to Martinez and now back to Concord. She’s worked for five different executives, although in the early days rather than the Executive Director, the Bar was managed by the Executive Secretary. Jenny worked for Lillian F. Galvin, Sue K. Nichols, Susan McKean, then Lisa Reep and now for Theresa Hurley.
Jennifer said the biggest change over the years came when the CCCBA started using computers in the early 1990s. She was intimidated and went back to her mother, sharing that she didn’t think she could stay with the office because she didn’t have computer skills.
But Jennifer and Emily Day, who joined the Bar in 1989, signed up for an adult education class at night and learned the basics of the computer operating system, how to use a mouse and Microsoft Word. She said she was still intimidated, but she learned a little bit every day, adding that she learned Microsoft Excel by herself, picking up tips on the job.
Other than taking the LRIS calls, Jennifer kept statistics on a spreadsheet of all of the members including their practice area, the year they passed the bar and date they paid their dues. She still has that old spreadsheet that shows records from the early 1990s until 2011 when the Intellinx database system was introduced and fine-tuned.
Before CCCBA’s sections were implemented, Jennifer’s job was to attend the events and check-in the attorneys as they arrived. She remembers those monthly luncheons for the general bar. Close to 200 members would attend and mix and mingle over cocktails and lunch and listen to a speaker. To this day some of the long-term CCCBA members still tell her how they loved those luncheons.
The holiday party was another well attended event. Normally held at different restaurants, one year the board decided to save some money and have the party at the CCCBA office. The landlord agreed, but required that the Bar bring in a breathalyzer to make sure he would not be liable if someone had an accident. “We were in a very small office in Martinez,” Jennifer remembers. “It was very cozy. We could hardly get down the hall to pass the hors d’oeuvres to the guests. The next day when we came in to work, the office smelled like a bar! And we had to clean it up.”
These days, as Membership Director Jennifer spends about 65 percent of her time answering the LRIS calls, she helps members update their records in the database, orders supplies for the office, codes the bills, analyzes the credit card statements, and handles accounts payable.
“I love my job,” she says. “I couldn’t ask for a better working environment. It’s been a blast.”
Here’s to you Jennifer. You are the always smiling, friendly face and voice of the Contra Costa County Bar Association. We thank you for all you have done to make the CCCBA an inviting friendly place for lawyers, judges and legal professionals and look forward to working with you well into the future.