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A lifeline for lawyers struggling with employment, debt issues

By Shawtina Ferguson

Shawtina FergusonYoung lawyers facing a weak economy recently have struggled with the emotional fallout from unemployment and underemployment, and many are seeking counseling to help cope. Given this demand, the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program has started to augment its more traditional personal and career counseling with a new program that will provide support groups—both in-person and online—to deal with the tough job market.

While it’s in the very early stages of development, the LAP program will focus on more recently admitted members who are grappling with what Acting Director Richard Carlton describes as the “two-headed monster: the challenges of finding employment while also paying back student debt.”

Carlton remembers a time when the legal profession was not as concerned with a lawyer's personal wellness. “When I started out back in the late 80s, the whole concept of programs to specifically address the needs and issues of attorneys was really in its infancy. Today almost every bar has programming of some kind focused on wellness.”

Generally speaking, LAP is charged with providing assistance to lawyers who are grappling with stress, anxiety, depression or substance abuse. Carlton describes LAP as a “monitoring and support program designed to help legal professionals who are struggling with any personal issue to find the resources that they need to address those problems.”

The program also offers two free consultation sessions with a career counselor who specializes in working with legal professionals.

Carlton, who began providing career counseling to the legal profession 20 years ago, said he has seen a shift in the needs of lawyers seeking support.

“When we started providing career counseling, the predominant ‘clientele’ were mostly mid-career lawyers who had burned out most often from doing the kinds of legal work that they had been doing and were interested in other options within the profession,” Carlton said. “Within the last five years that clientele has shifted dramatically.”

Carlton reports that most callers are now within the first five years of practice, and these new lawyers have “either never found full-time employment as an attorney subsequent to being licensed, or they've had a series of not terribly rewarding or satisfying roles and positions during that period and are still struggling to find their place within the profession.”

Thus, to better serve the needs of these lawyers, Carlton is looking to specifically tailor programs to unemployed or under-employed young lawyers. He hopes to roll out the in-person component of the new program in the next few months, with the online component coming after that.

As members of the bar, we are fortunate to benefit from his passion, innovation and expertise.

For more information, please email

Shawtina Ferguson is an associate at The Rasmussen Law Firm and chair-elect of the California Young Lawyer’s Association.