With just weeks to go before graduation, law students are bracing for a job market that has seen cutbacks at Center City firms.

Saddled with debt, some have seen job offers put on hold.

Others are considering options such as public service jobs, or working in a coffee shop, or baby-sitting.

In recent months, law firms in Philadelphia and across the country have been shedding lawyers and staff, leaving jobs in short supply. The District Attorney's Office rescinded 12 jobs in February due to budget cuts; Wolf Block partners recently voted to shut down the practice after 106 years; and Dechert, one of the city's largest firms, recently laid off 63 lawyers.

Such cuts set a bleak backdrop for young associate lawyers lacking experience.

Amanda Nordstrom, a third-year law student at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, said she would work as a clerk for Superior Court Judge Louise Donaldson in Camden after graduation. But it's only a one-year position.

"I'm worried about finding a job afterwards," said Nordstrom, 26, of Mount Ephraim. "I don't know if the economy is going to rebound."

"I think people are panicked and are really shutting down," Nordstrom said. "A lot of graduates who thought they were set with a firm job feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, because the job has either been rescinded or deferred."

She said some third-year students were scrambling for temporary jobs to help pay back their loans.

Sitting on loans

"I've talked to people who are thinking about taking part-time jobs at coffee shops just to pay their loans," Nordstrom said. "I even spoke with one person who was thinking about baby-sitting to pay back her loans."

Jonathan Ursprung, 25, about to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said students were "more anxious" as they tried to enter the job market.

His position at a Boston firm was supposed to start in September but has been deferred until January.

"I know a lot of students are worried about what to do during the deferral period. There is a grace period on some of our loans, but it's still frightening," said Ursprung, who declined to give the amount of his student debt.

Last year, according to career planning advisers at local law schools, deferrals were rare or nonexistent. This year, deferrals are routine. Law schools have no firm numbers on graduating third-year students who have obtained jobs. Those figures will not be available until next year.

At Penn's law school, approximately 13 students in the school's spring 2009 graduating class have seen their jobs deferred for up to a year. Of the 13, two were deferred from Philadelphia firms and the longest deferral time is one year.

Public service

Heather Frattone, associate dean for career planning and professionalism at Penn, said some firms were paying graduates to do public-service work during the deferral period. Other firms require that graduates line up a public-service job.

"Students are coping well and look at the deferral period as an opportunity to do something different and to be really thoughtful about the skills they are developing through that work," Frattone said.

She said it was important to look at the other issues graduates faced as well. Many firms do not offer health insurance or loan repayment during the deferral period.

At Widener University, Matthew DeNucci, a third-year law student and president of the Student Bar Association, has been working at the Delaware County District Attorney's Office since last May. He hopes it will turn into a full-time job.

DeNucci, 30, said he and his fellow graduates worried that they would now be competing with more seasoned lawyers let go from established firms such as Wolf Block.

This year, because of the deferrals, graduates are doubting the future of their law careers.

"The legal employment market is taking a hit just like everyone else," said Melissa Lennon, assistant dean for career planning at Temple's Beasley School of Law. "I think the large-firm market has not seen anything like this in a long time."

Lennon said about 15 students set to graduate next month had their offers either rescinded or deferred by Philadelphia-based law firms and organizations. She said career planning advisers offered students one-on-one counseling and provided targeted advice.

There has been a recent trend of students expressing interest in public service, she said.

About 38 percent of the class of 2008 went into public sector employment.

Good spirits

Lennon said students were keeping their spirits high despite the anxiety.

"How can they escape something the country is going through?" she asked. "I translate to them, it's not their fault. It is important for them to focus on finishing school strong and passing the bar exam."

Rebecca Verona, director for career planning at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, said approximately 20 third-year students set to graduate had been deferred and the longest deferral period was one year. The students were deferred from firms such as Ballard Spahr, Blank Rome, Schnader, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Reed Smith, and Montgomery McCracken & Walker.

"It's really uncharted territory for us," Verona said. "Sometimes, the first place you find out about these deferrals is through the press or on the Internet. First you read about it, and then you go to see which of your students was affected."

The legal job market anxieties are even affecting first-year students.

Peter Richman, 22, who is completing his first year at Temple, has come up empty in his search for a paid summer legal position. He's been offered an unpaid internship in Washington.

"I think a big problem with a lot of law schools is there's this myth that you go to law school for three years and come out making six figures," Richman said. Law schools "help create that. The reality is you're coming out $200,000 in debt."

Contact staff writer Brittany Talarico at 215-854-2771 or btalarico@phillynews.com