Lee Shapiro shifted his Italian-made convertible into third as he raced through a downtown San Diego street and proudly related how he had gone from his lucrative Kansas City, Mo., law practice to peddling brass-and-copper diving helmets in a San Diego parking lot. And in only a few short months.

Horatio Alger probably would have related the Lee Shapiro success story in precisely the opposite fashion.

Shapiro, 47, left Kansas City last January ("I beat the first blizzard"), having achieved in a relatively short career what most attorneys will never achieve. He had risen to the top relatively fast.

In a span of 11 years, Shapiro had helped write Missouri's divorce laws. As chairman of the state bar's domestic relations committee, he was looked to by judges for guidance on new interpretations of family-related litigations.

Shapiro was successful. He had clients, lots of them, and two nights a month he would travel to the nearby small town of Lake Lotawana, don judicial robes and sit as a municipal court judge.

"I don't think that anyone would dispute that he was the finest domestic relations lawyer in Missouri," said one of his Kansas City associates, attorney Robert Wehrman.

Shapiro is also described by those closest to him as a compassionate man with a ready wit, a quick mind and a free spirit. He describes himself as "a little bit crazy."

A year ago, the successful Missouri lawyer decided that he had had enough.

"I've always been something of a dreamer and wanted to live in a place like San Diego," Shapiro said as he revved the convertible at a stop sign.

"I read 'Passages' [by Gail Sheehy], I had lots of contacts with psychiatrists and psychologists through my work and one day I went to see the best psychiatrist in Kansas City, told him my situation and said, 'What the hell's the matter with me?'" Shapiro recalled.

"I've arrived. I'm there. I make tremendous money. I walk in the court-house and they roll out the red carpet for me," Shapiro said he told the psychiatrist.

Shapiro said he then realized that he was fed up with the day-to-day ritual of listening to clients -- all experiencing family problems -- and decided to call it a career.

"Every day someone walked in with a typical, totally unresolvable, irreconcilable dispute. In a child custody case, a client wins or loses, but the essence of it was that nobody wins."

With the day-to-day crises of his clients came the identity crisis of Lee Shapiro, the mid-life crisis that affects many Americans. So Shapiro, with his wife, Jean, daughter Teri, 19, and son Steve, 17, came to San Diego. But not to practice law. He is not licensed in California.

"He appeared to be getting burned out," said Wehrman, one of nine lawyers in Shapiro's firm. "He had done about all he could do here. We saw it coming for a long time."

One of his frequent opponents in divorce and custody cases, Charlotte Thayer, recalled that for several years Shapiro had joked about leaving the legal profession for a new life.

"About five years before anything happened, Lee's big joke was that he was going to open a leather shop in La Jolla," said Thayer, a lawyer in Grandview, Mo., in a telephone interview.

"Then about two or three years before he quit, he visited San Diego and came back with a nautical catalogue," she said. "Every time he had a break in courtroom proceedings, he'd sit there reading that catalogue."

"We all thought [his talk of leaving] was quite hilarious," Thayer said. "But about a month before he actually did get out, he stopped me in the hall and said, 'The time is ripe.'"

Shapiro, a sailing and motorcycle buff, pulled into the Rosecrans Street parking lot where the Tanya Kay is dry-docked during the week. The aging tugboat is a rotting, peeling, lonely hunk of wreckage. The Tanya Kay's wheel is not attached to any rudder because there is no rudder. There is no deck. There is no engine. Empty beer and pop cans litter the shell.

On the weekends, however, the Tanya Kay is spruced up a bit with banners and flags. In front of the relic rest hundreds of shiny brass artifacts, many of them reproductions.

Shapiro pulled out a pocketknife and gouged out a bit of the Tanya Kay's weary stern.

"Dry rot," Shapiro observed. "Never buy a wooden boat."

The Tanya Kay cost Shapiro and partner Peter Wolf $500 and despite its unseaworthiness it has paid dividends. The first week the tug was used to attract patrons to the busy street corner, Shapiro's enterprise took in $7,000.

The Shapiros, however, found the first few months in San Diego rough going, as if they had to sail the Tanya Kay during a gale.

"We were up against it," Shapiro said. "The shop wasn't going to be ready on time, we had this stock. I didn't have a regular job and I had to do something that was too horrible to contemplate; I started looking in the want ads.

"Nobody should have to do that."

The Shapiros opened a temporary shop on Market Street in downtown San Diego. Business was not good. They moved to the parking lot on a hunch. It worked.

Shapiro said he is quite satisfied with his new life and hopes that he can help others in the same boat to handle their own mid-life crises.

"Two of my good friends out here are Masters and Johnson-trained sex therapists," Shapiro said.

"We're going to get a really dynamic counseling course going which we will call Changing Life Styles, the Study of Intimate Human Behavior," Shapiro explained. "It will encompass career change. Among men and women there's a tremendous movement toward something that fulfills them.

"This movement is bringing about a lot of divorces -- both ways. Men can't handle their wives being their own professional or business person and a lot of women can't handle their men giving up a successful career."

Jean Shapiro, for example. She said she was apprehensive about the move to the West Coast, but has since adapted to the new life. She said she misses her friends in Kansas City and the horses she showed, but little else.

Said Shapiro: "I miss my colleagues and friends and I miss the income, but not that much. It's nothing I can't do without.

"I've reached the point in my life that I knew I was okay and I knew that it wasn't just a fluke... it takes some of us a long time to realize that."