Out of court

Evidence shows lawyers are leaving the legal profession. Unfulfilled, tired of conflict, many seek a new simplicity ...

It took eight years for Richard Stubbs to toil his way up law-firm hierarchies to reach the brass ring of partnership.

Fifteen months after that, he quit.

"It was certainly better than being an associate, but there was a sense of, what now? The idea of being able to keep learning didn't seem to be there," he says.

It is a common refrain of dissatisfied lawyers, who rise steadily up the ladder but ache for something more. (Some high-tech workers, too, find something lacking, see page 15.)

With the economy flourishing and professionals in demand, lawyers have more options than ever. Many who would once have feared abandoning the safe harbor of their prestigious firms - let alone leaving their profession - are now plunging into a vast range of alternatives.

Mr. Stubbs is one of many being lured to an Internet start-up. In February, he took a 25 percent pay cut to join bemany.com, a fledgling online company that peddles utilities at cut-rate prices.

He's uprooting his family, and has left a comfortable law office in Springfield, Mass., for an office his new company has yet to find in New York City. "It's going to be more akin to a conference room we had," he says. Stubbs hopes the company will grow from five to 150 Manhattan-based employees in a year.

Although no one seems to track how many lawyers leave the profession, career counselors and bar-watchers nationwide say they are increasingly jumping ship, whether for the promise of high-tech profits or myriad other possible paths to a more satisfying life.

That lawyers are dissatisfied should really come as no surprise.

Studies over the past decade have shown lawyers are more likely to be depressed, anxious, hostile, and paranoid than those who work in other professions. Some have found they're more likely to abuse alcohol, get divorced, or suffer from stress-related diseases.

A recent survey by the New York Law Journal found that more than 40 percent of associates at large New York law firms do not intend to remain lawyers for their entire careers. A 1997 report by the Boston Bar Association said a "significant cross-section of lawyers" were dissatisfied with their professional lives. And as early as 1992, a survey by California Lawyer magazine revealed that 70 percent of California lawyers would not choose the career again.

Why the woes?

Experts say that as the number of lawyers has increased - reaching over 1 million in the United States last year - the competition has become brutal, compounding both the workload and the competition.

In New York, lawyers worked an average of 1,800 billable hours a year 10 years ago. That number has risen to about 2,200 now, according to Ruth Hochberger, editor of the New York Law Journal, which tracks associates' hours, pay, and attitudes.

"Anecdotally, it seems to me that associates are a far more unhappy lot than they were 10 or 15 years ago," says Ms. Hochberger. It's true in smaller cities, too.

"Work-life balance issues are huge," says Susan Larson, a manager at Career Development Services in Rochester, N.Y., who counsels many dissatisfied lawyers.

Increasing reliance on faxes, beepers, e-mail, and cellphones has speeded the pace, exacerbating the problem.

"There's increasing pressure to produce and to bill hours," says Hindi Greenberg, who 10 years ago quit her San Francisco law job, started a career-counseling group for lawyers, and wrote a book called "The Lawyers' Career-Change Handbook." "It's become too bottom line for many people. The stress level has gone way up."

Another common complaint about the profession is the hierarchical nature of traditional law firms, where everyone from first-year associate to senior partner is aligned along a totem pole, and treated accordingly.

Internet start-ups and many other young businesses and nonprofits have overthrown the old pecking orders - and the starched collars, pinstripes, and stockings that came with it.

Of course, some lawyers are enticed by the chance to get rich quick. "I can't ignore the lure of the Internet millionaire," admits Stubbs.

That seduction has also spurred a surge in salaries at large law firms eager to retain their workers. In major US cities, associates' starting salaries at major firms have risen as much as 30 percent, averaging $125,000, and reaching as high as $140,000. Senior partners can earn more than $3 million.

But the extra money is not keeping lawyers happy. In fact, it's made law firms more insistent on hard work and interminable hours. "There is a sort of hell-bent-on-profits [attitude] out there," says Steven Keeva, Associate Editor of the American Bar Association Journal, based in Chicago, and author of "Transforming Practices," a book that advocates spirituality for disillusioned lawyers.

Another reason for the depth of dissatisfaction is that many law students have no idea what they're getting into. They go to law school hoping to do good, and at the same time, to do well. But after the debts have mounted - the average law student owes $60,000 by graduation. Many feel compelled to join large corporate firms, which pay high salaries, but pay strict attention to the bottom line.

Often, the new lawyers are sorely disappointed. "I tend to still think that the legal profession was something people went into to help people with the problems they face in their lives," says Ronald Fox, who practiced law for 20 years before he quit to counsel law students at Harvard, and now, with a psychologist, advises disheartened lawyers at the Center for Professional Development in the Law in Cambridge, Mass. "The depth of the gap between the expectation of what you're going to get and what you actually get is so great."

Apparently, prospective professionals have been catching on. Law schools saw a precipitous decline in the number of applicants in the 1990s, dropping from nearly 100,000 in 1991 to less than 75,000 in 1999, according to the Law School Admissions Council in Newtown, Pa.

Like many before her, Michelle Monse went to law school with little consideration for the realities of the profession. "I thought, 'I'm a good arguer. I'll become a litigator,' "she recalls.

But she soon grew discouraged with the constant combativeness. "It's more satisfying to work things out. It's so much better for everyone to get to 'yes' than trying to prove your point."

On top of that, "I wasn't working for anything that really motivated me," she says.

After five years at a corporate firm in Dallas, she realized she didn't want to wind up like the firm's partners, who were holed up in their offices regularly until 8:00 or 9:00 at night.

Ms. Monse left the legal practice to teach, and eventually abandoned law altogether. Now a program director for a Dallas charity, she doles out money to nonprofits.

Today, Monse earns $55,000 a year - about the same amount she earned as an attorney nearly 20 years ago, and about half of what starting lawyers make at a big firm in Dallas today. Any regrets?

"I wouldn't trade the life I have now for anything," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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