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This Attorney Is Seeking a New Way to Counsel

September 10, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIME

Seven years ago, family lawyer Jennifer Webb had what she describes as an epiphany. Though she'd been helping clients with difficult crises such as divorces and child custody battles, she suddenly found herself yearning to do more.

"I felt a need to change my approach to life in general and, specifically, [my] practice of law," Webb said. The realization led her to enroll part time at the American Behavioral Studies Institute in Santa Ana to earn a master's in counseling psychology.

Webb's desire to become a psychologist after years in law isn't so unusual, said Don Bersoff, director of the law and psychology program at Villanova Law School in Villanova, Pa., where students work toward earning joint clinical psychology doctorates and law degrees.

"I get probably a phone call a month from attorneys who want to go into psychology because they feel the practice of law is too impersonal, or they're disgruntled with its long hours," he said.

But 49-year-old Webb, a Newport Beach resident, isn't at all ready to abandon law as she eases into her new role as a psychotherapist. Rather, she wants to figure a way to better apportion her time between the two vocations. So far, she's managed to maintain a thriving legal practice as she nears completion of her master's degree.

In recent weeks, however, she's also begun a rigorous 3,000-hour internship during which she'll counsel therapy clients under supervision. Completing this supervised program may take two years, Webb said.

"I'm wondering how I can do all this while maintaining a law practice," Webb said. She added that she'd also like to keep her income above $100,000.

For assistance, Webb consulted Deborah Arron, a career expert on alternative vocations for lawyers and author of "What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law" (Niche Press, 1999).

Arron had Webb describe her ideal work future. Webb said she'd like to create a center where she could practice law, see therapy clients and share office space with psychotherapists. The collective could offer a multitude of services, other than legal, including divorce support groups, parenting classes, and mediation work, Webb said.

"Although I have a vision, I clearly have questions about how to implement such a plan, not only financially, but logistically," Webb said.

But Arron wondered aloud whether such a center would be viable. There were ethical and financial considerations (for example, possible conflicts of interest and questionable earning potential) that Webb needed to further research. For now, Arron said, Webb might wish to keep her law and psychotherapy practices separate.

Arron and other experts also offered these tips for Webb:

* Closely scrutinize your finances.

Could Webb maintain her current income while doing an internship that has unpredictable hours and maximum pay of $40 an hour?

Webb may have to accept a dip in income as she juggles her two demanding careers, Arron said. To free up time for her 3,000-hour internship, Webb probably will have to downshift to a part-time practice. This may prove difficult logistically, Arron conceded, because, as a family law practitioner, Webb must make frequent court appearances for contested divorces and custody battles--sometimes on short notice.

Arron also told Webb to closely scrutinize her law practice's overhead to see where she could cut back. Webb could consider subleasing part of her office or moving to a smaller space.

* Consider contract lawyering.

Because of Webb's difficult schedule, she might consider seeking temporary or hourly assignments from other family law practitioners that won't require court appearances, Arron said. This is called contract lawyering.

A contract lawyer's duties can include legal research, drafting memorandums and trial briefs, preparing complaints, reviewing and analyzing documents, taking depositions and interviewing witnesses, noted Arron in her book, "The Complete Guide to Contract Lawyering: What Every Lawyer and Law Firm Needs to Know About Temporary Legal Services" (Niche Press, 1999). Typically, contract lawyers earn between $45 and $75 an hour for their services, said Eric Walker, managing director of Lawsmiths of Southern California in King City, Calif.

But this work option, too, has its challenges. Webb will need to solicit work directly from fellow lawyers, because attorney placement agencies receive little demand for family law specialists, said Hindi Greenberg, president of Lawyers in Transition and author of "The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook: More Than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree" (Avon Books, 1998). Webb might be able to drum up additional contract work by networking with law school alumni as well as with peers at family law bar association meetings, Greenberg said. Lastly, Webb may want to consider doing mediation work or jury consulting, Arron said.

* Build your reputation as a therapist.

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