Flashback to the 1980s. Irene Stewart, a Petco Animal Supplies Co. manager, is watching "L.A. Law" on television. She hears Jimmy Smits' character say that he makes $80,000 a year championing justice.
Suddenly, Stewart is, er, smitten.
"I knew what I wanted to do," Stewart said a decade later. "Or so I thought."
Law seemed the perfect nexus for her skills, interests and dreams. And it looked exciting--on screen, that is.
Stewart quit her Petco job, attended USC Law Center and, after graduating, clerked with a district court judge. In 1992 she landed a position with the high-profile law firm O'Melveny & Myers.
Being a civil litigation associate at first proved rewarding. Stewart participated in headline-grabbing cases, including the Exxon Valdez trial. She worked with other bright and dedicated achievers. She even earned more than $100,000 a year.
But O'Melveny's intense pace--sometimes 100 hours a week at the office--began to drain her. And the brass ring of a partnership seemed out of reach.
After five years, Stewart left O'Melveny to try her luck at a mid-sized firm. She took a 30% cut in pay, hoping her caseload there would be less of a grind. But it wasn't. Stewart began to weary of lawyering--its extremely long hours, contentious nature and endless paperwork. Maybe law wasn't the right career for her, she thought.
But what was? In April 1998, Stewart resigned to live off her savings and contemplate the next chapter of her life.
"I've learned that money means much less than enjoying what you do," she noted in a letter to The Times. "I just need help figuring out what it is that I enjoy doing."
Stewart, 40, isn't alone in desiring advice for the law-lorn. Increasing numbers of attorneys are running from the law, according to Deborah Arron, author of "What You Can Do With a Law Degree."
Some are joining the high-tech revolution. Others are working as film and television moguls. More than a few are finding work as journalists, authors and even screenwriters. And the remaining renegades have simply traded their briefs for a place in the business world.
Why the exodus from law? Richard Spitz, managing director of executive search firm Korn/Ferry International's Los Angeles office, cites a caseload of reasons: greater pressure for billable hours, declining partnership opportunities and increasingly demanding clients.
Stewart consulted with Toronto-based career counselor Barbara Moses for help in finding a new vocation. She told Moses that she had three requirements for a new career: good pay ("at least $50,000"), a solid pension plan and a stimulating work environment.
Before Moses would discuss Stewart's future, she wanted to learn more about Stewart's past. What did Stewart do before becoming a lawyer? Moses was intrigued by her response. Over the last 25 years, Stewart says, she labored at a colorful potpourri of jobs--flight dispatcher, horse trainer, soup seller, pet products manager and lingerie saleswoman, among others.
"She's a generalist," Moses said. "Everything is interesting to her. But generalists' greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. They get immobilized because nothing particularly jumps out at them."
After further discussion with Stewart, Moses came up with suggestions that may lead Stewart to a fulfilling long-term vocation.
Step 1. Itemize your likes and dislikes. Moses sought more detailed revelations from Stewart. "What specifically did you like most about your past jobs? And what did you dislike most?"
Stewart rattled off answers easily. She appreciated autonomy, intellectual stimulation, helping people and working outdoors. She disliked close supervision; "repetitive, boring work"; and "being in an unstimulating environment where there's infighting and gossip."
"Most people get into trouble because they feel they should be loving their job 100% of the time," Moses warned. "You're not going to find one piece of work that meets all of your desires. Assess your skills, your likes and dislikes and decide what you absolutely have to have and what you can live without."
Step 2. Don't stray too far from your primary skill. Moses and Stewart free-associated about possible new careers. Stewart mentioned that she'd recently considered public speaking, horticulture and owning a small business.
Did Stewart truly want to divorce herself from law? Moses asked. Stewart's skills might be sought after in fields such as arbitration, legal recruitment, legal publishing and legal aid. But Stewart was adamant. She handed down a final verdict: She didn't "want anything to do with law." This concerned Moses.
"The farther away she goes from the law, the stronger the pitch she'll need to make to an employer, and the bigger the financial drop she'll have to take," Moses said.
Step 3. Be realistic about a new career's prospects. Many people have "dream aspirations," Moses noted. But unless they have substantial income from a secondary source, they can't pursue these fantasy careers full-time.