Between classes last week, Will Hall was headed to a résumé-writing workshop at Florida State University College of Law.

“It’s definitely not the best economy to try to find a job in,” said the third-year student.

Hall, president of the law school’s Student Bar Association, is not sure where he’ll end up after graduation in May.

“You have to be innovative and creative,” he said.

Nearly 44,000 law students nationwide will graduate next year with an average of about $73,000 in loan debt, according to numbers from the American Bar Association.

And while most would-be lawyers already have accepted that only a small fraction will start their careers with a big-firm salary of $160,000, the past few weeks of economic chaos have caused many to wonder if any kind of attorney work is in their near future.

Aware of the dismay, law school career services professionals say they are working simultaneously to bolster morale among students and to keep the job outlook realistic, a feat that requires a sympathetic ear and a bit of a nudge.

“I’ve got students coming in asking if they should go for an LL.M.,” said Carole Montgomery, director of career development at George Washington University Law School in Washington.

If students want to pursue the advanced law degree to avoid looking for a job, Montgomery advises against it.

“I tell them, ‘you need to make a good-faith effort to get yourself a job,’ ” she said. “ They’ve got to have a back-up plan, and a back-up, back-up plan.”

It is too early to tell to what extent law firms scaled back hiring this fall for summer associates in 2009. But James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), said that, anecdotally, law firms were more cautious in the offers they made.

“For the class of 2009, it will be tough,” he said.

The help that career services offices provide has become increasingly important as schools compete for top students and tout their connections to firms and public interest organizations as a distinguishing factor.

Think about HUD

In addition, law school rankings in U.S. News & World Report depend partly on graduate employment rates. The recent economic crisis means that many offices are working overtime to connect students with jobs.

At George Washington University Law School, Montgomery is encouraging students who planned to work at large law firms to instead apply for jobs with government agencies. Not only can graduates gain solid training, but they also can take advantage of loan-forgiveness opportunities, she said.

She is urging students to consider positions beyond those at the more prestigious agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Students should open their eyes to possibilities at places such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said.

In Hall’s case, he lives in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, and would welcome a government job. But he said that a hiring freeze imposed on state agencies has blocked that option. He hopes to become a trial lawyer.

“My dad has his own little firm. I may be going there sooner rather than later,” he said.

‘Clearly nervous’

At the University of Iowa, the College of Law is trying to provide extra help to students through workshops such as “The Job Search in Tough Times” and “Attributes of Successful Candidates: What You Need to Know in Tough Markets.”

The Midwestern law school, to a certain degree, is insulated from the turmoil of Wall Street, said Steve Langerud, assistant dean for career services. Still, as much as two-thirds of the law school’s graduating class leaves Iowa to take jobs elsewhere.

“They’re clearly nervous,” he said.

Students get caught up in the news coverage of bank failures, plummeting stock values and jobless rates, he said, and they get panicky about their own prospects.

“What they’re hearing can be more frightening than reality,” he said, adding the school actually saw an uptick in the number of on-campus interviews this fall.

But there is genuine cause for concern. The number of legal jobs nationwide is steadily declining, according to employment figures released this month by the U.S. Department of Labor. Jobs in the law sector shrank by 2,000 in September — the fifth consecutive month of losses. The legal work force of 1,165,100 was down by 1.15% from a year ago, when the industry employed 1,178,600 people.

It’s all timing

The current employment troubles for law graduates is a sharp contrast to the job market that classes even just a year or two ahead of them enjoyed. In July, NALP reported that the job market for law graduates was at its highest level in 20 years.

By Feb. 15, nearly 92% of all 2007 graduates for whom employment status was known were employed, NALP reported.

But it seems that times quickly have changed, said Eric Toscano, a third-year student at the University of California, Davis School of Law. Toscano, who is president of the Student Bar Association there, said that many second-year students who participated in on-campus interviews this year are frustrated by the lack of job offers. He will start full-time with Reed Smith’s San Francisco office next fall.

Toscano recently met with a group of second-year students who expressed their concerns. Even students in the top 15% of their class were not getting offers, he said. The situation is particularly bad for students who are counting on summer associate income to help pay down some of their loan debt.

“My heart goes out to second-year students at the top of the class who aren’t just academically qualified, but who have the personality to fit into a law firm, who are just not getting the opportunities we had a year ago,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for career services professionals is dealing with the rumor mill among law students, who are a “worrisome lot” by nature, said Tom Ksobiech, assistant dean for career services at the University of Alabama School of Law.

“Everyone has heard something from ‘a friend,’ ” he said. “ According to the ‘friend,’ there are no jobs anywhere.”

His school has made a push in recent years to get more law firms to participate in on-campus interviews.

This year’s turnout was strong, Ksobiech said, but he remains guarded about the future.

“Where we are in two years as a nation, that’s the thing that everyone has to watch out for,” he said.

Outlook’s bleak for summer associates, too.