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Balancing Life and Practice

Lawyers Questioning, Abandoning Their Profession



The Boston Globe
Sept. 2003


Jean Terranova wasn't the only lawyer in Massachusetts this year feeling deep dissatisfaction with her choice of profession. In fact, she wasn't even the only soon-to-be-ex-lawyer in her class at chef school.
More from The Boston Globe

A death penalty appeals specialist from Framingham, Terranova, 38, said she was fed up with increasingly strict laws to limit appeals, inflexible sentencing guidelines, and funding shortages that prevented her from hiring the necessary experts.

"The courts had become so robotic," said Terranova, who plans to become a private chef once she wraps up her case involving a death-row inmate in Texas. "Nobody cared about justice anymore; it was just about applying rules. I got very frustrated with that. I always liked to cook."

One of two lawyers in her cooking class, Terranova is among a steadily rising number of attorneys questioning whether to stay in a field that no longer offers what they once considered key draws: a chance to help clients and the ability to choose interesting cases over lucrative ones.

After 11 years as a lawyer, Terranova graduated this summer from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, an intensive, 10-month program that trains professional chefs.

Instead of scouring case law or honing pleadings, she faced other challenges such as making a palate-pleasing shumai dumpling without using ginger.

While most attorneys are not abandoning briefs for brioche, virtually everyone from bar association presidents to law school deans agrees that these are times of deep dissatisfaction and angst in the legal industry.

"Generally speaking, being a lawyer today has become much more demanding, much more stressful, and there is less satisfaction from the work," said Boston lawyer and former Massachusetts Bar Association president Thomas F. Maffei.

In Boston, most lawyers know of someone who has recently left the profession or abandoned a big-firm partnership. Bar association officials who track industry trends say former local lawyers have started new careers ranging from rabbi to venture capitalist, English teacher, and romance novelist.

The problem, complex and wide ranging, has been building for some time. A Boston Bar Association survey released nearly six years ago concluded that a "significant cross-section of lawyers are dissatisfied with the quality of their professional lives."

Bridging the gap between identifying the problem and doing something about it, however, has frustrated many lawyers. Long-term trends such as corporate consolidation and a chronic oversupply of new lawyers have been exacerbated by the country's long economic slump and declining public-sector revenues.

Virtually every area of practice has been affected, specialists say: From corporate lawyers burned out due to pressures of the bottom-line mentality to practitioners spending more time scrabbling over a shrinking client pool and public defenders whose jobs are threatened by state budget cuts.

Counselors at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, which helps attorneys dealing with alcoholism, depression, and other personal problems, say they are seeing more and more clients whose problem is that they are lawyers.

"We're seeing stress and burnout in more lawyers than we ever have before," said executive director Bonnie Waters.

Jeffrey Fortgang, a psychologist and LCL counselor, said he is referring many troubled lawyers to career counselors and medical professionals. "While a client may be depressed, instead of Zoloft they may need Monster.com - or sometimes both," he said.

Statistics kept by the state Board of Bar Overseers show that the number of nonpracticing lawyers in Massachusetts has risen steadily during the last five years, from about 9,000 to almost 9,800. Yet, at the same time, thanks to law schools churning out record numbers of graduates every year, the number of practicing lawyers rose even faster, from about 40,000 to nearly 46,000.

Most lawyers, legal career counselors say, prefer toughing it out or seeking a different niche inside the profession.

Hindi Greenberg, a California-based legal career counselor, said that about 20 percent of the attorneys she has counseled actually leave the profession, some opting to become cattle wranglers, human resource directors, and small-business owners. Another 40 percent end up choosing another legal field and the other 40 percent make no change at all.

Even in hard times, lawyers often feel they have too much invested in their careers to make such a radical break.

"While most of them are reexamining what they are doing, there is a portion who decide, based on all the factors, that they are just too afraid to make a financial change," said Greenberg, who runs a website called www.lawyers intransition.com.

The happiest lawyers these days, legal career specialists say, are those who have figured out that the old promise of a law career as both lucrative and personally rewarding is no longer guaranteed. Many are lucky just to have a choice between one or the other.

Harvard Law School's director of student life counseling, Mark L. Byers, said he tells the school's graduates to think carefully about who they are before deciding what kind of lawyer they want to be. "They need to really try to figure out their core values and decide whether they still match those in the profession," he said.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company

  
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