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Stressed out? State Bar can help

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

Los Angeles attorney Anita Stuppler was close to falling apart at “the law firm from hell” when she discovered that she could get career counseling through the State Bar. Today, less than a year later, she is doing what she loves — teaching law and tutoring candidates for bar exams — and making as much money as she did in her old job.

It was the career counseling, she says, that helped her muster enough “guts” to launch her own full-time business doing what she’d been doing on the side for more than 20 years.

“The handwriting was all over the wall and I couldn’t see it,” Stuppler said recently. “I always wanted to have a tangential connection to law and I’ve always loved teaching. So this is perfect.”

Increasingly, attorneys with job-related troubles — stress, burnout, failed job searches or even the desire to leave law altogether — have been turning to the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) for help. In response, the program has been sending such attorneys to brief career counseling free of charge.

Richard Carlton, LAP’s deputy director

“I began to incorporate this into the program over time as more and more people were coming to me,” says Richard Carlton, LAP’s deputy director. “I’ve encountered more people trying to make a significant transition in the nature of the legal work they’ve been doing, or wanting to transition out.”

Various factors seem to be triggering the uptake in calls, he says. With the economic downturn, some attorneys are struggling for longer periods without steady work. Certain legal jobs have all but dried up. In addition, Carlton points out, the pressures involved in practicing law have intensified. The practice has become more technologically driven, and clients and the entire legal system now expect a more immediate response from attorneys, an expectation that can be particularly hard on solo practitioners. “It’s just increasingly more difficult,” he says, “for people to survive in the current practice of law.”

Carlton wants to spread the word that brief career counseling, a little-known aspect of LAP, is available to any State Bar member who feels he or she would benefit from it.

The laid-off attorney with a strong resume, good experience and the goal of getting a similar job may head directly for a legal recruiter. But the unemployed lawyer with a non-traditional background or the unhappy working attorney might discover some additional job search tools or new options through career counseling.

Take Stuppler, for example. Admitted to practice law in seven states, the 57-year-old attorney has worked for a state human resources commission, for a district attorney’s office, for a city controller’s office, as a placement director for a law school, as a hearing officer for parking tickets and as a seventh-grade school teacher. Throughout it all, she tutored candidates for bar exams and taught law school courses on the side. Career counseling helped give her the “extra boost,” she says, to finally become a full-time, self-employed teacher and tutor.

Career counselors say that when economic times are good, their clients are more apt to be seeking a career change. In bad times, more just want help getting a job. But such counselors also counsel women struggling to balance law careers with family lives, senior partners seeking an exit strategy and associates who simply want to change what they do within their firm.

There are those who want out of the legal profession entirely. Some go into fundraising. One attorney became a museum curator. Another launched a scuba diving business and still another joined the FBI. But counselors say fewer than one in three clients (the estimate varies by counselor) leave the law completely.

“A lot of times they think they want to get out of the law,” says Stuppler’s former counselor, Susan W. Miller of California Career Services in Los Angeles.

Counseling can be useful in such instances, Miller says. Then the attorney’s decision, whether it is to leave or not, will be a conscious one made after examining the options and tradeoffs, which usually include a pay cut. For those attorneys simply looking for a job, Miller reviews the individual’s marketing tools, strategies and resources, and may help hone a resume or interviewing skills.

But for those seeking a career change, the process typically involves an assessment interview, setting priorities and a look at occupational alternatives and local labor market research. Clients may also tap into Miller’s network of mentors to further explore a potential career.

< Unhappy in her first law firm job after passing the bar several years ago, attorney Michelle Surfas was questioning her career choice when she discovered career counseling. “I’d really started to freak out a little,” she recalls.

Meeting with Miller in early 2001, Surfas underwent an assessment and a series of tests. “Every single one of them pointed to my becoming a teacher,” she says, “and that happened to be one of the things I was considering before going to law school.”

After exploring her options and talking to other teachers, including her mother, Surfas quit her job, moved home and began substitute teaching. Within months, she had a job teaching junior high school in Anaheim while earning her credential. Currently, she is working toward a master’s degree in educational administration as well.

For her, career counseling played a key role. “It was an outsider who had nothing to gain or lose by speaking to me,” says Surfas, now 30. Miller “validated my ideas and took away my fears, or helped alleviate them anyway.”

Career counselor Hindi Greenberg knows personally what it takes to make a career transition. After working as a business litigator for a decade, she launched her own career counseling service for attorneys. She recalls a friend saying, “No one is going to pay you to do this.” Today, 18 years later, Greenberg has a databank of some 15,000 attorneys.

For many, a shift within the legal arena is enough, Greenberg and other counselors say. Greenberg recalls working with one litigator who, through counseling, decided to move into appellate work. He liked the theoretical side of law and disliked the litigator’s irregular schedule. With Greenberg’s help, he pitched a proposal to develop an appellate practice within his own firm. The firm, which had been referring such work elsewhere, gave him the job.

These days, however, Greenberg is spending more time buoying up discouraged attorneys in a tough job market. She helps them examine how they might parlay their legal skills into a slightly different legal area and addresses fears triggered in part by media reports of the hard-hit economy. She has seen some success for those who are flexible. “Those who persevere often can find something,” she says.

Career counselor Sue Aiken at the Bay Area Career Center in San Francisco says that most of her attorney clients, in both good economic times and bad, are simply burned out, disillusioned or seeking a career change of some sort. “If your career is not aligned with who you are as a human being and you’re working at odds with your own value system,” she says, “then that’s where the burnout comes in.”

Aiken has found that the process can help people sort out their issues and open their eyes to new possibilities. “It helps people to realize that they do have options,” she says. “It helps them to get unstuck.”

For more information on the brief counseling services offered through the State Bar’s recently established Lawyer Assistance Program, call 1-800-341-0572. A consultant will be available to discuss your career issues or personal problems negatively impacting your work and can arrange for up to three counseling sessions.

LAP also offers a structured recovery program (1-866-436-6644) in which attorneys with substance abuse problems or mental illness can get extensive assistance with their recovery efforts.

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