Hundreds of would-be law professors will arrive this week at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, dressed in conservative suits and clutching resumes and copies of the academic articles they have painstakingly researched. They will mill around nervously in the cavernous hotel lobby as they await their 25-minute interviews with law school hiring committees, which will be the centerpiece of the Association of American Law Schools Faculty Recruitment Conference — the “law school meat market” to those in the know.

The conference happens every October, but it’s unlikely to prove business as usual this time around. Legal educators predict that entry-level faculty gigs will be especially hard to come by, given the dramatically reduced entering class sizes at many schools and uncertainty about the future.

“These are extraordinary times. It’s going to be a brutally difficult year, if this is the year you want to be hired,” University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law professor Marc Miller told a group of 40 aspiring law professors during a conference in Tempe, Ariz., in September.

Approximately 142 law schools have registered to attend the AALS hiring conference — a 14 percent decline from the 166 that attended last year and a 21 percent decrease from the 179 schools that participated during pre-recession 2007. The schools that do attend won’t necessarily hire — some use the conference to scout teaching talent for the future. (It’s difficult to tell how many open teaching spots actually exist, as some schools advertise specific positions in an AALS-published bulletin but many do not.)

At the same time, the number of aspiring law professors has held fairly steady during the past five years. Thus far, 750 candidates have registered for the AALS’ faculty interviews, although that number does not include the final list of candidates, which will come out in February. The total number of registrants has fluctuated between 824 and 901 in recent years, according to the AALS.

‘THE STAKES ARE HIGHER’

One of those hopefuls is Brian Owsley, a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas and a 1993 graduate of Columbia Law School. He attended the AALS hiring conference eight years ago, was invited to many interviews and even landed a few job offers, but he ultimately turned them down for his job on the bench. This time around, the number of law schools that granted him interviews is just a quarter of what it was eight years ago, he said.

Owsley attributes that to the slow economy, and possibly the fact that law schools prefer younger candidates who they can more easily mold. The stress was bad enough when he was a hotter prospect, he said. “This time, the stakes are higher. There are fewer interviews and fewer schools interviewing. I won’t have to worry about running ragged from interview to interview.”

University of Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter, in a post on his popular Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports blog, predicted during the summer that hiring would decline as cautious administrators adjust to declining enrollments. “Since salaries for teaching staff are the biggest part of a law school’s budget, schools are going to proceed very cautiously before hiring new faculty,” Leiter wrote. “My guess is this cutback in hiring will last at least the next couple of cycles, until the applicant pool stabilizes.”

(The number of 1Ls enrolled at American Bar Association-accredited law schools declined by nearly 4,000 last year. The updated figure was not yet available for this school year, but at least 23 schools have reported declines of 15 percent or more in their 1L classes.)

The University of Minnesota Law School won’t send anyone to Washington this year, said dean David Wippman, although its 10 percent smaller 1L class wasn’t to blame. The school has added five faculty members during the past two years and simply doesn’t need any entry-level professors right now, he said. Instead, the school is hiring laterals to occupy two new chairs created through private gifts. Hiring needs vary widely depending on the school and the year, he said, but there hasn’t exactly been a feeding frenzy of late.

“We did see some decline in overall hiring at law schools last year, with declines in public funding and lower endowments,” Wippman said. “I think the smaller class sizes will produce some continuing softness in the hiring market.”

At least one law school is significantly reducing its enrollment while also increasing the size of its faculty. That shift is part of a comprehensive plan to improve the University of California Hastings College of the Law, according to dean Frank Wu. The school, which reduced its 1L class by 20 percent this year, plans to hire between two and four new professors to replace retiring faculty. It boosted the overall size of its faculty last year to improve its student-to-faculty ratio.

Hastings prefers to “grow its own faculty” by hiring new law professors rather than recruiting laterals, Wu said, and he expected no trouble finding qualified candidates at the AALS conference. “It’s a buyers’ market,” he said. “It’s a great time to be looking for faculty candidates.”

ARIZONA CONFERENCE

Some of those candidates got a dose of reality last month during the one-day conference for aspiring law professors held at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. ASU began hosting the free conference four years ago to help prospective law professors learn about the hiring process and prepare for the AALS conference. Elite law schools often offer internal support for graduates who enter the law school hiring market, but graduates of non-elite schools tend to be on their own, said ASU dean and conference founder Douglas Sylvester. “We want to make sure that everyone gets the same information and opportunities that other people have,” he said.

The conference was a mix of panel discussions, mock interviews and “job talks,” in which aspiring professors presented an academic paper as a way to demonstrate their knowledge and teaching skills.

The day kicked off with a keynote by University of Alabama School of Law professor Paul Horwitz that simultaneously offered encouragement and a word to the wary. Horwitz stressed that candidates should not become too discouraged if they don’t succeed in their first attempt to land a job. At the same time, he cautioned that the bar has been moved higher, in that law schools increasingly are looking for candidates who already have some teaching experience, who have already published academic articles or who have completed a doctorate.

“In a nutshell, schools are looking for someone who is tenure-ready,” Horwitz said — brimming with ideas for research and enthusiasm for being in the classroom.

Law schools are always looking for good scholars and teachers, said Brannon Denning, a professor at Samford University Cumberland School of Law and co-author of a book about the law school hiring process. This year, interviewers may ask candidates about what they bring to the table beyond teaching and writing, he said — be that helping students land jobs or improving the overall quality of the law school.

“I think schools might ask questions like: ‘How are you going to add value to a student’s education?’ or ‘How will your classroom teaching help develop skills they need in practice?’ It will be interesting to hear from candidates if there is much discussion about the existential debate over the law schools.”

Denning will have to find that information secondhand. Samford is among the law schools not attending the hiring conference this year.

The entry-level faculty members hired in 2012 are unlikely to receive many of the perks their predecessors enjoyed, Denning said. Guarantees of four-figure summer research stipends, lower teaching loads for prolific scholars and pre-tenure sabbaticals have been on the table for desirable candidates in the past, but “I think a lot of that stuff might be cut back, if not eliminated, this year,” he said.

Rebecca Rausch voiced confidence heading into the conference. A visiting assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law, she has more interviews lined up than she did last year — and with more prestigious law schools.

“In talking with other candidates, many are doing worse this time around,” said Rausch, who graduated from Northeastern University Law School in 2004 and practiced health law for a number of years. “I’m fortunate to have a reasonably large number of interviews for someone with my background, given I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. Health law seems to be a hot area right now, with many schools looking to hire.”

Rausch has spent the past four years laying the groundwork for a move into legal academia, publishing articles and teaching as an adjunct at her alma mater before taking the position at Seattle. Visiting professorships are temporary faculty positions that offer a foot in the door plus experience teaching and writing scholarly articles.

“This is not something you do on a whim,” she said of entering the hiring market. “It’s a tough process and you have to be willing to move anywhere. But being a law professor is a wonderful profession, and a profession I hope to become a part of.”