Situation wanted: High-performance type with dashed hopes, loads of law school debt and mortgage acquired at peak of housing boom seeking self-esteem and lost identity following recent layoff from law firm. Willing to adjust once-lofty career aspirations in exchange for doing anything remotely related to the practice of law.

The ad may be fiction, but the scenario has become a reality for hundreds of attorneys who started law school just a few years ago with prospects of six-figure salaries and their pick of where to practice.

Last month alone, an estimated 1,100 attorneys lost their jobs at major law firms, which means that the market is choked with highly educated former associates whose severance is running out and whose bills are piling up.

For the first time in their lives, many of these lawyers are struggling with a profound feeling of failure. And while they acknowledge that their troubles are just a part of the jobless scene nationwide, such perspective provides little comfort for these high achievers who are grappling with a loss of purpose and direction.

“I feel really lost right now,” said Aviva Tiegerman, a former attorney at Kaye Scholer who was laid off in May.

As a second-year associate, Tiegerman, 29, worked in the New York law firm’s real estate practice group, a job she liked very much, she said. The amount of work in her department had slowed dramatically, so she was not surprised when her boss came into her office and delivered the bad news.

But what she didn’t anticipate was the continued implosion of the real estate sector across the country and the difficulty she would face in finding another job.

“I don’t think it registered,” said the 2006 cum laude graduate of Hofstra University School of Law. “I don’t think I knew how bad the market was.”

Tiegerman said that she called job recruiters “within five minutes of getting laid off.” They told her that the employment market was slow but that she could expect to find a job in three to six months.

When the economy was strong, she’d receive two or three calls a day from recruiters, she said. “I used to hang up on them.”

Under her severance arrangement with Kaye Scholer, Tiegerman continued to go into the office, a situation that became increasingly painful, she said.

“I would show up every day and not know what to do,” she said.

A spokesman for Kaye Scholer said that the firm could not comment on a former employee but added that it wished Tiegerman well.

In September, she was close to landing a job at another law firm — she’d interviewed with 12 people at the firm — but just before the final decision, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed. It was one of the biggest clients for the firm, which decided to freeze hiring.

These days, Tiegerman is working temporary jobs when she can find them. Before she was let go, she and her husband had just completed renovations to their apartment in midtown Manhattan. They have “blown through” their savings, she said. “I keep finding jobs just in the nick of time.”

Part of what makes layoffs particularly difficult for many young associates is that they come from a generation with a “trophy mentality,” said Larry Richard, a psychologist and consultant with Hildebrandt International. His work focuses on lawyer personality types and management issues.

Not only do today’s associates have the typical lawyer traits — risk aversion, skepticism and impatience — but they also are part of a generation raised on plenty of affirmation and rewards. And for people accustomed to earning gold stars, the pink slip hurts all the more.

Even if the law firm assures its associates that the layoffs are a consequence of the economy and not the lawyers’ performance, most people will struggle with what they might have done differently, Richard said. The “what ifs” in turn, can undermine self-confidence, he said.

Laid-off attorneys also tend to remain isolated from others, which also can take its toll on their self-esteem, Rich said.

Commiserating with others who have lost jobs, however, is not something Scott Chait is interested in doing.

“I don’t particularly care to network with people who have been laid off,” he said. “It can be really unhealthy.”

In October, Chait was let go from New York’s Wagner Davis, where his work focused on real estate transactions. A 2006 graduate of Brooklyn Law School, he is collecting unemployment and has moved in with his parents in New Jersey. Without providing specific numbers, Chait, 31, said he is burdened with “a full debt load.” Rigorous workouts help keep his spirits up, he said. “It feeds the need inside me.”

He describes himself as competitive, with a “Type A” personality, and said that critical to his daily routine is not sleeping in. He spends much of his day looking for jobs on employment Web sites. He also goes to his synagogue every morning. “I get a lot of positive enforcement,” he said.

The uncertainty of joblessness is a “corrosive acid” that raises the threat mechanism, or a sense of danger, among those who are laid off, Richard said. When the threat mechanism increases, people take a fight-or-flight approach, which means that they tend to make rash decisions and to think in all-or-nothing terms.

Laid-off lawyers may believe that they will never find employment again or that they performed badly at their previous job, Richard said, and he recommends that people make contact with other laid-off attorneys. “There’s safety in numbers,” he said.

It’s not just laid-off workers feeling the emotional impact, Richard said. The uncertainty for those remaining at law firms also can create problems. Supervising attorneys must learn to be “better psychologists” in dealing with workers who are feeling unsettled. Acting-out behavior, he said, can include nit-picking, inattentiveness, work-hoarding and a generally cantankerous attitude, he said.

“A lot of people are in survival mode,” he said.

Megan Logsdon isn’t sure how to describe her situation. She was an associate at Thacher Proffitt & Wood, which closed its doors in December.

“Can you be laid off if your firm dissolved?” she said.

A 2008 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Logsdon worked in the corporate practice group at Thacher Proffitt for just two months before she learned that the 160-year-old law firm was going out of business. She knew that it was troubled when it decided to delay her start date, but since she had already committed to a full-time position and had given up options at other law firms, she pushed ahead, only to get cut loose eight weeks after she started. Many of the attorneys in her practice group got jobs at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, but they didn’t take new associates, she said. Her pay ran out on Feb. 20.

“It’s super stressful,” said Logsdon, 28. “Right now, I’m looking for any kind of paid legal work, and I’m going to start looking for volunteer work.”

She has sent out dozens of résumés and is willing to relocate for a legal job, she said. She applied for one position in Bethel, Alaska, population 6,000.

“I would work anywhere,” she said.

Right now, Logsdon and her boyfriend, also an unemployed attorney, are living in a small apartment in Queens, N.Y., she said. She has about $120,000 in student loan debt.

Logsdon said that she is still surprised that, as a graduate from Georgetown law school with good grades and the ability to speak Spanish, she is unable to find work.

Adding to her worry is the fresh crop of graduates coming out of law schools in the spring, who will intensify the competition for associate jobs. She doesn’t have the benefit of having any full-time work experience to speak of, and that scares her.

“A lot of jobs I’m qualified for are really geared toward those new graduates,” she said.

She, too, finds solace in exercise, but she feels isolated, she said, and would enjoy connecting with others in the same situation. A former English teacher, Logsdon considered “running away” and returning to teaching.

“But there’s no way,” she said. “I spent a lot of money and have done a ton of hard work, and I’m not giving up.”

Next moves for newly-unemployed associates
More and more, today’s jobs searches start by logging onto the Internet instead of with an informal face-to-face interview and a handshake. The world of cyber job hunting presents lots of opportunity but also potential pitfalls for attorneys looking to land a position — and there are plenty of people in that category, given the widespread layoffs hitting law firms.