Little love lost between lawyers, law

June 29, 1995|By Maura Dolan | Maura Dolan,Los Angeles Times

He earns $150,000 a year at a prestigious law firm, owns a home in an upscale neighborhood and drives a sports car. But the 31-year-old Los Angeles defense lawyer is so unhappy that he is considering chucking his law career and doing something else.

"I look around this firm and see so many people making very good money and being so miserable," he said.

Disenchantment with the legal life is so pervasive among lawyers that many were not surprised when prosecutor Christopher A. Darden recently questioned whether he wanted to try another case after the high-pressure O. J. Simpson murder trial.

Although Mr. Darden may simply be frustrated by the difficulty of prosecuting a celebrated, well-heeled and popular defendant, survey after survey has found that a growing percentage of lawyers despise their jobs.

They tend to be more troubled than other professionals by severe depression and drug and alcohol abuse, studies have found. Eleven percent of lawyers polled in North Carolina in 1991 admitted they consider taking their lives at least once a month. In California, a quarter of attorneys are on inactive status with the State Bar and no longer pay dues, up from 10 percent in 1980.

Many lawyers trace their disillusionment to the practice of law itself. Pressure to make money and win big cases has transformed the legal culture, many lawyers say, turning the profession into more of a sink-or-swim business. For some, the art of wooing clients has become more valued than crafting effective legal arguments. "It's a war out there," a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer said matter-of-factly.

Some lawyers also probably should not have entered the profession in the first place. Law schools in recent years became what one former lawyer called "the great dumping ground for liberal arts majors," churning out reluctant warriors ill-suited to the constant acrimony of battle and drudgery of motions.

"I knew I needed another degree past a bachelor's," the successful entertainment lawyer said, "and law school seemed as good a choice as any."

A RAND study last year concluded that California attorneys were "profoundly pessimistic" about the law, with only half indicating that they would choose again to be a lawyer.

Law school applications peaked in 1990, and some statistics suggest that lawyers may be leaving in greater numbers to become teachers, real estate agents or, like Richard Gottfried, psychotherapists.

"Aspects of myself that I like weren't being called upon enough" in 10 years of law practice, said Mr. Gottfried, 38, who counsels primarily lawyers in West Los Angeles. "There was perhaps an over-emphasis of the intellectual, the combative and the competitive."

Attorneys tend to be perfectionists who pay too little attention to relationships and try to intellectualize problems, he said. Some studies, he added, suggest that the incidence of chemical dependency among legal professionals might be as much as 50 percent higher than for the general population.

Also, a 1990 Johns Hopkins University study found that lawyers are more likely to be severely depressed than members of 103 other occupations.

Elizabeth Brodersen believes she gave up status, as well as financial rewards, in return for greater happiness as a publications director for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

She earns one-fourth of what she would be making had she stayed in the law and believes strangers now treat her with less deference.

"There was a certain reaction I would get whenever I would say I was an attorney, especially as a woman," Ms. Brodersen said. "Now when I say to someone that I am a writer and do publications for a theater, they say, 'OK.' But if the conversation continues and I happen to mention I was an attorney, people are impressed."

Ms. Brodersen, 35, had worked in a corporate law firm in San Francisco where the long hours and stress made her ill.

"I really enjoyed law school," she said. "It was intellectually very challenging. But when I got into practice, I realized it was very commercial."

Now she loves researching such topics as Greek burial rites and the history of Moors for theater productions. But "there is still a little voice in my head saying, 'Why couldn't you stick it out like everyone else and make all that money and have a lot more prestige.' "

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