FORTUNE — Not so long ago, a law degree was a surefire ticket to a secure, and often highly lucrative, career. Those days are gone.
“Part of the problem is that the recession wasn’t supposed to drag on this long,” observes Harvard Law grad and longtime lawyer Shauna Bryce, who has launched a second career as a career counselor to beleaguered attorneys. “All the people who got law degrees as a way of riding out the economic downturn are finding that, while they were in school, the job market for lawyers has only gotten worse.”
Fewer than half of the 40,000 attorneys who graduated in 2011 have found full-time jobs in law firms. Just under 65% of newly minted attorneys hold positions that even require a law degree, the National Association for Law Placement reports, down from 75% four years ago.
The reasons are many. For one thing, companies bent on cost cutting have been hiring paralegals to do much of the work high-priced lawyers used to do, or they’ve migrated to cheaper online services like LegalZoom.com. At the same time, Bryce notes, novice attorneys face stiff competition from more seasoned legal eagles who have been laid off.
And that’s not all. “The dip in merger-and-acquisition activity in recent years has reduced demand for lawyers, and much of the work that remains has moved up from the first-year associate level to more senior attorneys or even partners. First-year associates were always a financial loss to law firms, because their time can’t be billed out at a profit. So now, with clients tightening the purse strings, there are no legions of junior minions anymore.”
Bryce calls this combination of woes “a perfect storm,” and sees the heavily debt-laden class of 2013 sailing straight into it. Moreover, law students who put off job hunting are even more likely than most to be left high and dry. “Recruiting season on law school campuses used to start in late September or early October,” she says. “This year, there are far fewer recruiters out there than there used to be — and they are interviewing candidates right now.”
The author of a new book called How to Get a Legal Job: A Guide for New Attorneys and Law School Students, Bryce recently launched howtogetalegaljob.com, aimed at advising nervous neophytes. The most important thing students aren’t doing, she says, is networking. In researching her book, Bryce interviewed more than 150 senior-level lawyers in corporations and law firms, most of whom are also hiring managers, and “almost every one of them said they had gotten where they are by networking,” she says. “Yet most law students don’t do it.
“It isn’t that they don’t have the time,” she adds. “It’s that they don’t understand what it is.” Done right, networking “isn’t cold calling people to ask for a job. It’s building long-term relationships that can lead you to opportunities that aren’t advertised anywhere.”
Even when they do get busy working the room at bar association events and connecting with potential employers on LinkedIn, Bryce says, most lawyers-to-be make one common mistake: “They don’t aim high enough.”
To get noticed, and ultimately hired, “you have to overcome your fear of rejection. Research illustrious alumni of your law school and stars in your field of practice, and reach out to them, either on LinkedIn or in person, or both,” she suggests. “What’s the worst that can happen? They ignore your invitation to connect? So what? Meanwhile the upside is potentially huge. If you contact, say, 100 distinguished people and even one of them responds, and ends up being a mentor to you, the payoff can be enormous. So don’t hesitate.”
Come to think of it, that’s smart advice even for job hunters who aren’t lawyers.