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More Lawyers Are Benching Law and Courting New Career Paths

June 15, 1997|STEVEN GINSBERG | From Washington Post

If David Gray had to give a reason why he decided to become a lawyer, it's that he didn't want to become a doctor.

"I had no particular affinity for law," said Gray, 41. "I had the opportunity to go into medical research, but I didn't want to spend my life in a lab."

So Gray completed law school and passed the bar exam in 1980. His 12-year-old firm, David Gray & Associates, is doing well, he said.

Now he wants out.

Gray hopes his exit is provided by the success of a newer venture--Bottom Line Wine Co., a retail wine shop he started in Washington.

"After a while, [the law] isn't challenging," Gray said. "Right now I'm dedicating the majority of my time to the wine. The hope is to do it full time."

Gray is among a growing number of workers who are changing professions, by choice or otherwise. Citing stress, burnout or simply boredom, many workers are chucking respected positions for what they see as greener pastures. Others, the targets of corporate or government downsizing, are being forced into new careers.

But among professions experiencing broad defections, law may be leading the charge. Nearly 10% of 1996 law school graduates did not pursue legal jobs, according to the National Assn. for Law Placement, a membership organization that conducts research for the schools. That compares with 9% in 1995, and the figure has steadily climbed from a low of just under 5% in 1988. Nearly a quarter of those who do not have law jobs work in nonprofessional positions for which a law degree is irrelevant.

"Every lawyer I know has expressed interest in doing something else," said Hillary Mantis, director of the Career Planning Center at the Fordham University School of Law in New York and author of "Alternative Careers for Lawyers."

"More and more students approach me and ask, 'What else can I do besides practice law?' "

Lawyers start to seek other options when they discover that reality doesn't meet their expectations, Mantis said. Common misperceptions are that all lawyers make a lot of money and that the work is perpetually intriguing. Add long hours and high stress, and you've got associates heading for the door, she said.

Feelings of stress and boredom are not unique to attorneys, of course.

"It used to be that the expectation was to go to college and get a professional degree," said John C. Parkhurst, director of the learning-assistance service center at Catholic University in Washington.

"People would go through the process blindly, but a new pattern is forming. People are reassessing and are taking the opportunity to do what they always wanted to do, not simply the path of least resistance."

They are able to do so, in part, because of advancements in education, communication and transportation. Once it was easier to find a job where you grew up, or where your parents worked, but the information age has exposed people to all kinds of jobs in all kinds of places, Parkhurst said.

Still, switching fields is not without its dangers, workplace experts say.

"Who's to say that jumping careers is going to be better?" asked Robert Butterworth of Contemporary Psychology Associates Inc., a research group in Los Angeles. "People tend to idealize, and they don't understand new job environments."

Most workers looking for a career change are between 45 and 50 and are reevaluating their lives, Butterworth said. Often these people confuse problems at home with problems at work and try to fix them by changing jobs, he said.

Butterworth urges those who long for a change to incorporate their existing skills into a related job. He also recommends seeing a counselor.

Art Ricker felt no need for intense soul-searching hard before jettisoning the corporate lifestyle.

"Like everywhere else, it was becoming more bureaucratic and less fun," Ricker, 50, said of his job at Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus in Vienna, Va., where he was vice president of marketing. "I was sick of e-mails and voicemails and meetings, meetings, meetings."

Last year Ricker left Ringling, where he had worked for 28 years, for the mountains of West Virginia. Three hours west of Washington, in the tiny town of Cabins, he and his wife opened North Fork Mountain Inn, a small bed-and-breakfast.

Despite trading a secure $150,000 salary at Ringling for about $60,000 a year at the inn, Ricker has no regrets.

"It's absolutely worth it," he said. "It's a much slower pace, and there's no politics. A lot of times I work 15-hour days, which is more than I did at Ringling, but it's fun. I'm doing things I used to do as a hobby."

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