Sworn in as new attorneys this month, here’s how some recent law graduates describe how they and their classmates feel about the job market: Nervous, stressed, worried and frustrated.

Four new lawyers and a law school’s career development dean say they’ve observed that in lieu of finding law-firm jobs, many law grads start their own firms, seek public- or business-sector careers, or do contract legal work while searching for permanent jobs.

“It’s tough, but we are all hanging in there,” says Erica Leon, a compliance officer with the U.S. Department of Labor. Leon had a front-row seat to observe the competitive job market while she attended Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. The 2011 graduate worked within her school’s career services office and says 2010 and 2011 graduates struggled to find jobs and it’s still impacting 2012 law grads. It can take six to nine months to find employment.

“There’s just a lot of contract work going on, nothing stable,” says Leon.

Nadia Barrow, a May 2012 University of Houston Law Center graduate, is doing contract work for a plaintiff’s firm in Houston. She says she thinks her search for a permanent job has been “difficult” because of the tough economy and saturation in the legal market.

“There’s definitely some worry. I wouldn’t be human without it,” Barrow says, adding that she also feels optimistic about finding a job. Many of her peers are starting their own firms, and others accept contract work. Barrow says about her unemployed classmates, “A lot of people are stressed.”

Ray Chung knows that type of stress. A 2011 graduate of Baylor University School of Law, Chung says he nearly gave up on working in the legal field during his job search.

“It was really a struggle in that time frame,” he says. But Chung kept applying at intellectual property boutique firms and he landed a patent-agent position at Conley Rose in Dallas. He became an associate after passing the bar exam.

Chung says some of his peers are frustrated, but they must be patient and maybe accept “stepping-stone” positions because, “That concept of finding a perfect job doesn’t happen anymore.”

The hardest thing is getting a foot in the door at a firm, he adds.

Jeremy Reichman, a May 2012 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, got a foot in the door early at Vinson & Elkins in Dallas. He clerked there in the summers of his first and second years of law school, and knew in his third year that he’d become an associate.

“I came in expecting the worst, as we were warned, and I think it’s been a little better,” says Reichman, who was the top scorer on the July 2012 Texas Bar Exam. But he says some classmates didn’t go the law-firm route. They changed their career plans to follow opportunities in the public or business sectors.

Allison Regan, assistant dean in the Career Development Office of the University of Houston Law Center, says, although most of her school’s students still “go firm side,” a growing number seek “alternative legal careers” in the energy or healthcare industries.

“We’re seeing more businesses hiring and recruiting our students, and we’re seeing students eager to take those positions,” says Regan.

Law graduates still searching for jobs must follow a “three-fold approach” to find success, she says. First, it’s critical to custom-make résumés and cover letters for each specific position. Next, connecting with employers through networking or informational interviews is “huge,” as is following up on applications. Finally, job searchers must work to prepare for interviews: Regan drills her school’s students in mock interviews to get them ready.

“Oftentimes, students only submit a résumé online and sit at home waiting for someone to call them. But they need to be proactive,” Regan says.