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LEGAL PROFESSION LOSING LUSTER - AND LAWYERS

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For many lawyers, law is losing its appeal.

After investing thousands of dollars in tuition and years of their lives in practice, some lawyers feel they haven't met the goals that initially brought them to the profession, whether it be to help people or to have a prestigious career with a big salary.Many have decided to seek new careers. One estimate puts the number at 30,000 a year. And after years of uninterrupted increases, law school applications fell 11 percent in the last three years.

Times are tough for lawyers, from lowly associates to partners in major firms.

With 800,000 lawyers in the nation's courts and another 40,000 graduating each year, clients are becoming selective, and competition is fierce. Some law firms are raising the hourly billing requirements junior lawyers must exceed to be considered for partnership. Private practice is demanding, sales-oriented and aggressive. Public cynicism about the profession is rampant and rising.

"I get a lot of tears in law firms, people feeling they are in a trap," says Myrna Marofsky, a consultant with the Professional Development Group.

Consequently, 20 percent of those entering the profession are leaving - something unheard-of only a generation ago.

Even outside the rigid bureaucracy of a large firm, legal work is often a business of long hours and skull-crunching stress.

"I'm married to a lawyer, a sole practitioner. He worked until 2 a.m. last night so he could have a one-day weekend. He works every Sunday," Marofsky says.

That's not unusual. A study by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that 13 percent of lawyers in private practice worked more than 240 hours a month in 1990, up from 4 percent in 1984.

The shortcomings of the justice system also are prodding lawyers to leave, says Linda Zimney, a Minneapolis psychologist whose practice has included more than a dozen career-conflicted lawyers.

"When you're hit with the grim reality of the workload and disillusionment with the system of justice, then if your motivation wasn't that you love to battle or love the income, you begin to question," she says. "They didn't realize how painful it would be to them to have to represent people they know were lying."

Many lawyers consider it imprudent to discuss their career dissatisfactions publicly. They fear being ostracized by their colleagues or dropped by their firms or clients.

Deborah Arron, a Seattle author of two books for career-changing lawyers, was a featured speaker at recent seminar for lawyers. Her workbook for lawyers in transition, "What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law," is "the most stolen book in law school career services offices around the country," she said with a rueful laugh. "They want the book, but they don't want to risk being seen buying it."

Renay Leone says she discovered widespread hidden dissatisfaction among other lawyers only when she declared her intention to leave her Minneapolis law firm.

"It was amazing. A couple of people thought I was out of my mind and told me so . . . But I had a lot of people come in my office, close the door and say, `I wish I could do what you're doing.' They felt locked in by salary, the prestige, expectations of family and friends."

That dilemma is sufficiently widespread to have spawned a small industry of confidential career-counseling specialists targeting lawyers who want out.

Former litigator Patricia Comeford launched one such firm after deciding that "a lot of fighting over money" was not what she wanted to do with her life. In 1989 she quit to open a headhunting firm for lawyers. Over the last five years the Minneapolis firm has helped more than 600 lawyers figure out how to recycle their skills into new careers.

Clients have gone on to be editors of legal publishing concerns, teachers, title examiners and officers of nonprofit agencies. Two even joined the Peace Corps.

Like Comeford, Arron had a law practice that was "high-pressure, competitive, antagonistic and negative." Her decision to bail out after 10 years to become an author came when she achieved her proudest moment in court and realized it was a hollow victory.

West Publishing Co. commissioned a poll last year on public attitudes toward lawyers. It found resentment, suspicion and outright vilification of lawyers.

Like the trained advocate he is, West Publishing President Vance Opperman offered an upbeat spin on the findings:

"Nothing is so good it can't be improved. But the American justice system is truly the finest system the world has for peaceful conflict resolution. Imperfect, yes. But the alternative is truly blood-curdling. The alternative is revolution and chaos."

The drubbing the legal profession is receiving is just one facet of pervasive criticism of our society's authority figures, says West Publishing spokesman Mike Ebnet. "People always used to look up to doctors, lawyers and priests, and they're all taking a beating."

The ABA recently agreed to allocate about $700,000 to begin implementing portions of a wide-ranging "communications plan" to educate people about the justice system and the role of lawyers.

"We've listened, we've learned and now we're trying to take action on what the public has been telling us," says ABA director of communications Michael Scanlon.

What the ABA heard was a public angered by lawyers who are unresponsive, uncaring and greedy. So the ABA set into motion programs that train lawyers in "a better desk-side manner," facilitate complaints about lawyers and scrutinize lawyer ads on television.

"We've discovered we were part of the problem," says Scanlon. "We're trying to convince the public that we're part of the solution."