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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Looking for a happier legal career,
or something different

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Kathy Friestadt
Berkeley lawyer Kathy Freistadt traded a stressful legal career in favor of the financial uncertainty, but greater satisfaction, of landscape design.

Some just want a change from the kind of law they’re practicing. Others want a completely new profession that has nothing to do with the law. Some have lost their jobs or have seen their practices diminish to almost nothing or can’t find that first job and just need an entree. And still others found time away from the law only made them more eager to get back to it.

For many reasons, lawyers attend legal career consultant Hindi Greenberg’s seminars, and such was the case when the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) hosted Greenberg’s recent workshop in San Francisco.

  • George Main wanted to network and learn about legal opportunities in the midst of a tumbling economy that hurt his immigration practice.
  • Karren Moore-Jordan wanted to get out of probate law and shift to something that frees her from court-imposed schedules and pay.
  • Birgitte Gilliland wanted to test her desire to return to law after being a stay-at-home mom despite assertions by family and friends that she was crazy to want to go back.
  • And Peter Shelton wanted to know what he needed to do to get back to his “passion” after taking time out to manage a family real estate business.

“From conversations I’ve had with literally thousands and thousands of lawyers over the past 23 years,” says Greenberg, 64, “I can break them into roughly two groups — those who think their practice of law should be abandoned, the sooner the better, and those who feel that using their legal skills is desirable but wish they could lessen aspects of the practice that they dislike, or find new meaning, or rekindle lost excitement in their work.”

Kathy Freistadt falls into the first category. The 56-year-old Berkeley lawyer who practiced transactional, environmental compliance, patent and regulation law over her 22-year legal career, recently shut down her firm in order to be a landscape designer. She plans to remain on active status but couldn’t be happier despite the financially uncertain future.

“I feel that what I’ve chosen to do now allows me to express my creative side and actually create beauty,” says Freistadt. “If I was going to work into my 60s and 70s, I wanted to have something I really looked forward to, and being a lawyer just wasn’t doing it … I don’t like the combativeness of it. I don’t like some of the deadlines and stress and never being able to feel like I could set aside time and have it be mine.”

She also seconded what LAP Deputy Director Richard Carlton mentioned as major reasons for lawyer stress: “You’re expected to be right all the time and you’re expected not to make mistakes. In other professions, it doesn’t matter if you’re right all the time … I’m tired of always dealing with people’s problems,” Freistadt says. “Problem-solving I enjoy, but always dealing with problems — and especially with really horrible problems — is something I’m tired of, and I think other lawyers are tired of, too.”

Studies on lawyer job satisfaction do not appear to be conclusive. Some say lawyers are among the unhappiest professionals; others say they’re about as satisfied or dissatisfied as other workers. One of the latest studies, the Pulse of the Legal Profession, which surveyed members and nonmembers of the American Bar Association, found that about 50 percent of lawyers are satisfied with their jobs. Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, reports that 56 percent of lawyers surveyed in 2006 were “very satisfied” with their jobs.

As a consultant to lawyers considering a job change, Greenberg, of course, sees the 50 percent or so attorneys who are dissatisfied with their jobs for a host of reasons. But one constant, she says, is that no one has ever said they like billable hours — “the pressure, the stress of it.” Still, no one wants out of the law because of billable hours alone. “If they liked what they were doing, they could stand (billable hours),” she says. Instead, Greenberg hears young associates complain about a lack of mentoring or a feeling that they are not making a meaningful contribution to society.

In informal surveys sent out to former clients, she found that only about 20 percent who wanted a change actually moved completely away from the law. Forty percent did something within the law or somehow directly used their legal skills, whether it was moving to another firm, doing legal research or working as a legal journalist. The remaining 40 percent stayed with their jobs for financial reasons, because the options were not attractive or for other reasons.

“I can talk about how they can mitigate the situation,” Greenberg says of her clients, many of whom think their only alternative is to dump the law completely. “I’m a very good reality check with people,” says Greenberg. “The grass isn’t always greener.”

One client was having problems with the two partners she worked for so the answer in that case was to switch firms. Another client was a litigator who hated the pressure and the combativeness of his work, but he liked research and writing. He switched to appellate work at his firm. Greenberg, herself a lawyer, found that she didn’t like the contentiousness of law, the legal research, the requirement to cross every t and dot every i. What she liked were court appearances, speaking in court and counseling clients; her transition to career consultant for other attorneys was a natural progression. She also wrote a book, Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook: More Than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree.

Greenberg takes issue with the idea that a lawyer is throwing away all the hard work, long hours and big bucks that it took to become an attorney if he or she changes professions or modifies the work so it doesn’t fit the traditional view of lawyering. Lawyers, she notes, are trained to collect information, analyze, research, write coherently, speak before the public and counsel others. “The skills are very transferable,” she says.

Even some who seem to have taken a 180-degree turn, such as the lawyer-turned-scuba dive shop owner or the attorney-turned-French chef, get great value from their legal skills, whether in perseverance, knowing how to negotiate or reading a contract. Having a law degree is never a waste, says Greenberg. Instead, lawyers considering a change should assess their skills, interests, values and financial needs, as well as determine whether there is a way to mitigate their job unhappiness.

Moore-Jordan, 49, of El Cerrito, who is looking at the possibility of doing something with juvenile justice, says Greenberg’s seminar confirmed that she’s “on the right track” with her networking and volunteer efforts. Shelton, 49, of Berkeley, said he especially liked Greenberg’s specificity. “She gives you a framework and system to analyze where you want to go.” He took 10 pages of notes during the workshop and planned to reconnect with former colleagues on his path back to litigation. “I’ll be back,” he promised.

Gilliland, 43, who practiced in New York but does not yet have a California license, attended the workshop expecting to be dissuaded from practice, especially since she faces another bar exam after 15 years. “I think I’m really committed now to practicing again,” she said after the workshop. “Nothing jumped out to me and said, ‘I hate it,’” she added. “I definitely was burned out when I left; now I’m anxious to get back … What I miss most about the practice is the intellectual stimulation.”

But Gilliland does not want to return to a major national firm, although she thinks the long hours and the large number of deals she worked on were essential in learning her craft. Her next step, she said, was a self-assessment. “Am I employable and what are my strengths?”

Paul Miller, 35, of Santa Rosa, said his estate planning work had “ground to a halt” and he was looking for options. A graduate of Empire School of Law, he lamented that “the world’s your oyster if you’ve gone to a top-tier law school and options are more limited when you have a less prestigious school attached to your name.” But the seminar had prompted him to increase networking, join sections and other groups — “just kind of get out of your comfort level and start exploring out there.” Miller does catering at the moment to help make ends meet, but said there was no doubt the seminar “was worth it.”