Third-year students at law schools across the country are about to graduate and enter a brave new legal world. It’s a world in which attorney layoffs don’t come as a shock to anyone, pay freezes are par for the course and law firms hope they have enough work to keep their lawyers busy.

So what do 3Ls make of the changes that have rocked the law profession since the economy started to nosedive in September? Well, they aren’t panicking — for the most part. Many feel fortunate that they completed summer internships before the financial markets plummeted and firms pulled back recruiting efforts.

Although 3Ls aren’t in despair, many of them are far less confident about what the future holds for them than the classes that preceded them. “I don’t know anybody who is not nervous,” said Eric Reed, a December graduate of the University of Michigan Law School who will start work next fall at a large Philadelphia firm. “Frankly, if you’re not nervous, you haven’t been paying attention.”

CARLY LEINHEISER

The law firm hiring picture seems pretty clear for 3Ls at this point in the academic year, but there’s a big question mark hanging over the public interest law job climate.

With the exception of clerkships and some fellowships, many government agencies and nonprofit legal groups don’t make hiring decisions until late winter and spring. That has left students like Carly Leinheiser hoping that the recession won’t dry up their public interest law job prospects. Budget cuts have hit a growing number of states, and many nonprofits have reported drops in funding.

“There are jobs that are probably going to be impacted,” said the 28-year-old, who attends New York University School of Law. “I just don’t have any sense of that yet. It’s too early to tell.”

Leinheiser spent last summer interning at Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization that provides legal defense to those who can’t afford representation. She enjoyed the work and is interested in going back, she said, but the office is small and probably is not hiring staff right now.

Instead, Leinheiser — who spent three years in development for nonprofits before heading to law school — is hoping to land a position as in-house counsel at a nonprofit in New York. If an attorney position doesn’t materialize, however, Leinheiser has a fallback in mind. “I’m also looking at some fundraising positions, which is what I used to do, but I would prefer to do something with my law degree.”

BEN CARLSEN

Ben Carlsen ran the numbers before he applied to the University of Georgia School of Law back in 2005. The Georgia native figured the starting salary for a new law firm associate was more than what he could expect to earn after 20 years at his corporate finance job. Thus, he left the finance world — where he had worked for the previous six years — and set off toward a career in the law.

Nearly three years later, and just a few months shy of graduation, Carlsen and many of his classmates are realizing that their salary expectations and their career aspirations don’t necessarily fit into the current legal landscape.”

We started applying to law school back in 2005. Most people expected to go into the market and make at least $100,000. That was the general consensus,” Carlsen said. “Now the thought is: ‘I’m not going to get a $150,000 job. I just want a job with benefits.’ “

That reality hit home for Carlsen as he has watched classmates struggle to secure employment after graduation. Carlsen said one friend who is on the law review and at the top of the class still doesn’t have a job lined up, while another is applying to business school — in part to delay entering the law firm job market.

Carlsen doesn’t have to worry about the law firm climate for at least a couple of years. He’s secured a two-year clerkship in Savannah, Ga., with Chief Bankruptcy Judge Lamar W. Davis Jr. of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Georgia. He’s hopeful that the economy will have picked up again by the time he completes his clerkship.

“I consider myself lucky. I’ve got benefits, and I’ve got a job.”

BYRON SARHANGIAN

Home foreclosures are through the roof.

New commercial development projects have ground to a halt thanks to falling demand and the credit crunch.

It’s a terrible time to be getting into real estate law, right?

Not according to Byron Sarhangian, a 23-year-old 3L at Vanderbilt University Law School who has managed to find a silver lining in a situation that others may see as nothing short of grim. Sarhangian has long been interested in real estate law, and that’s just what he hopes to practice when he arrives at the Phoenix office of Snell & Wilmer after graduation. He spent the past summer working at the midsize Southwest firm, which has a strong real estate practice. Even though the sluggish real estate market has hit Phoenix particularly hard, Sarhangian said the slower pace may create a better environment for him to get his bearings.”

You can really grow and learn to practice real estate law [at a time like this],” he said. “You don’t have to go in and immediately be flooded and inundated with work. You have time to stop and think.”

Sarhangian said he’s been in contact with associates at Snell & Wilmer who have assured him that the firm isn’t expecting attorneys to bill the same number of hours they typically would when the economy is strong.

Given all the bad news, it’s hardly surprising that law firm economics have been a hot topic on law school campuses as students sift through the numbers like tea leaves — searching out strengths and weaknesses. Sarhangian said Snell & Wilmer’s conservative approach to growth and low debt was a factor in decision to accept a job there.

LOIS SEONG

Lois Seong isn’t sure what she will be doing after she graduates from the University of San Diego School of Law with her J.D. in May, and she’s got a lot of company.”

There are more people who don’t have jobs than people who do,” said the 26-year-old Californian of her class. “I wish the economic meltdown didn’t happen right when I am graduating. But I guess once you hit the bottom, you can only go up.”

Given the tightening job market, Seong is casting a wide net in her search and considering areas of the law that she likely wouldn’t pursue in better economic times. She is applying to “a little bit of everything,” including government positions, small to midsize firms and criminal law positions. Seong has a broad array of internship experiences to draw upon, including a summer at a nonprofit law firm that specializes in disabilities and special education work, another summer assisting people in small claims court and a semester-long externship with a judge.

She would love to land a government position, but California’s current budget crisis could be an obstacle. Seong has noticed fewer available staff positions in district attorney offices and similar government agencies this year. As if her classmates didn’t have enough to worry about, they are also facing increased competition from more experienced attorneys who have been laid off in the recent downturn. “For me, that’s a big concern,” she said. “I think it could make things just that much harder.”

DRAKE JENKINS

Landing a law firm job isn’t supposed to be that complicated — at least not when you are about to graduate from a prestigious institution such as the University of Michigan Law School. But the old rules don’t necessarily apply at a time when the economy is tanking.

Hailing from a brand-name university didn’t spare Drake Jenkins, a 3L on track to graduate with honors, from a small bout of job search-induced anxiety.”

Very few firms were looking at 3Ls,” said Jenkins of his efforts last fall to secure a law firm job. “It was much more of a nailbiter than I expected it to be.”

Part of Jenkins’ problem stemmed from that fact that he didn’t take the traditional route to landing at a firm. Instead of summering with a firm after his second year, Jenkins decided to gauge his interest in criminal law by interning with a prosecutor in Michigan. The experience helped him realize that being a prosecutor was not for him, and that meant leaping into the traditionally difficult 3L law firm market.

Jenkins landed just six on-campus interviews at the start of the school year and got three callbacks. Two firms flew him in for second-round interviews, but no job offers emerged. The third firm finally came through with an offer in mid-November, and Jenkins will head off to a midsize New York firm, where he expects to work in the tax practice.

“Taxes are as omnipresent as death,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s a relatively safe place to be.”