After three years spent seeking highly competitive summer internships at area law firms, Brian T. Sadonis started his final year of law school at the University at Buffalo without a job waiting for him after graduation.

He took a one-semester break from the stressful application and interviewing process before rededicating himself to the pursuit of a full-time position. After six months of job hunting, on the day before Sadonis took the bar exam in late July, he received a job offer from Gibson, McAskill and Crosby, a Buffalo law firm.

“It really is a function of the effort and how much you put into it,” said Sadonis, 26, a native of suburban Syracuse, who earned a dual MBA-law degree from UB last spring. “I think people maybe lose sight of how difficult a market it is.”

As Sadonis and thousands of his peers across the

country have learned, many law firms have cut back on hiring law students for summer internships and recent law school graduates for entry-level, full-time associate positions.

With companies still experiencing the effects of the recession and looking to lower the cost of their legal services, the law firms they retain are feeling the pinch in turn.

Law firms in the Buffalo Niagara region and elsewhere are showing flexibility in their fee schedules, cutting back on travel and other expenses and, in some cases, putting off the hiring of additional lawyers.

This means those firms that are hiring are getting a better crop of applicants, and they can afford to be choosy.

“I would say that it is a buyer’s market for legal talent,” said Joseph P. Kubarek, managing partner with Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel.

Law students, fresh law school graduates and even experienced lawyers are facing tough competition for positions at law firms, with some forced to take part-time work or full-time jobs outside the legal field. A law degree, even from a top-tier law school, doesn’t guarantee a lucrative, partner-track position at a firm these days, experienced members of the field said.

“I wouldn’t want to be coming out of law school now,” said one veteran Buffalo lawyer who asked not to be named.

UB hikes competition

The practice of law in a region with little or no population growth, such as Buffalo Niagara, is highly competitive even during booming economic times. Many of the region’s larger firms have in recent years started seeking clients outside the area and even the state.

On top of that, Western New York is home to UB Law School, the State University of New York’s only law school, which every year produces a new crop of lawyers, many of whom plan to practice in this area.

UB Law School, where tuition this year was $20,730 for in-state students and $35,220 for out-of-state students, had 225 graduates in the class of 2012 and 245 in the class of 2011.

“One of the benefits and burdens of Buffalo is that it has a law school here,” Kubarek said. “I think that causes us to have a more robust supply of lawyers than other communities of similar size.”

The legal job ads placed by firms here often seek lawyers with two or three years of experience, not fresh out of law school, said Kathleen M. Sweet, president of the Erie County Bar Association and a partner with Gibson, McAskill and Crosby. “It’s never, ‘Looking for a new law grad,’ ” she said.

Those better-experienced lawyers are paid more – but not a lot more – than a new graduate.

“It seemed that it was a trend that started even before the recession,” Sweet said.

The economic downturn only put more pressure on law firms, with their business clients looking to cut costs wherever possible and with legal services coming under a financial microscope.

For example, clients are asking for alternatives to standard, hourly fees, lawyers said.

“I’m somebody who provides legal services to medium to large businesses,” said Kubarek, a partner in Jaeckle Fleischmann’s business and corporate practice group. “They are sophisticated consumers who are demanding efficiencies.”

Another difference, according to Kubarek, is that when he started practicing law 30 years ago, everyone hired by a firm was brought in as an associate on the partnership track.

“That will not be the case going forward, and it is not the case today,” he said, noting that some lawyers are hired on a contract basis, not as full-time employees.

With even the nation’s largest law firms easing up on hiring, Buffalo firms are receiving applications from top-tier law school graduates who might otherwise have gone to firms in New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere.

Some local firms have boosted hiring. Phillips Lytle, for example, has seen significant growth in its pharmaceutical and telecommunications practices.

“Our business has really held up and expanded in a number of areas, which has required us to go out in the market and acquire additional talent,” said David J. McNamara, the firm’s managing partner.

Phillips Lytle hired 16 lawyers in its Buffalo office last year, compared with eight in that office in 2011, and McNamara conservatively estimates the firm will hire 10 lawyers this year.

McNamara compared the current situation to what he found when he came out of law school in 1986, around the time of the savings and loan crisis and a downturn in the real estate industry. He said he’s learned that the legal business is cyclical, with every valley followed by another peak.

“What we’re trying to do is get out ahead of the next cycle,” McNamara said.

Jaeckle Fleischmann, which has about 50 lawyers, hired two new associates last fall, after hiring one in 2011 and two in 2010, Kubarek said.

Hodgson Russ, Buffalo’s largest law firm with 210 lawyers, last fall hired six or seven new associates fresh out of law school, a number that is fairly typical for the firm, Chairman Daniel C. Oliverio said.

The firm has grown from the 180 or 190 lawyers it employed a decade ago, but the economic downturn has affected its clients. Hodgson Russ looked to cut expenses in its contracts with vendors, the cost of its telephone services, travel and other areas, Oliverio said.

“Like everyone else, we’ve tightened our belts,” he said.

Gibson, McAskill and Crosby has about 30 lawyers, a number that has ranged between 25 and 35 over the past decade, Sweet said. “We generally hire a new lawyer a year, but it’s rare that it’s more than one,” she said.

Gibson McAskill hired Sadonis last summer. He said he found the position at Gibson McAskill because he was interning, through the UB School of Management, with the Elmwood Village Association, and a partner at the firm was a member of the nonprofit’s board.

Sadonis, who practices medical malpractice defense after being admitted to the bar last month, said he has friends from law school, some from the class of 2011, who are still looking for full-time employment.

Pay dropping, too

Of the 245 graduates in UB’s class of 2011, 157 of them – 64 percent – were working as lawyers nine months after graduating, while 19 percent were working in another field or enrolled in graduate school. The rest were unemployed or unaccounted for, according to the law school.

Nationwide, just under half of the members of the class of 2011 were working in private practice within nine months of graduation, compared to 50.9 percent from the class of 2010 and 55.9 percent from the class of 2009, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

And the median starting salary for new law school graduates has fallen 17 percent from the class of 2009 to the class of 2011, from $72,000 to $60,000, the association reported.

A small group of law students has sued their law schools, arguing that the schools misled recruited students about their prospects for employment after graduation.

“I think a legal education is still extremely valuable,” Hodgson Russ’ Oliverio said, but he added that law school graduates may want to look at alternative careers, such as working in the business world, in academia or in the nonprofit world.

The tightening market for legal jobs may be driving a decline in law school applications.

As of Jan. 25, just over 30,000 people had applied for a spot in the class entering law school this fall, a decline of 20 percent from the number of applicants at the same point one year ago, according to the Law School Admission Council.

In all, an estimated 68,000 people applied for a spot in the fall 2012 cohort, a steep drop from the 98,700 who sought entry to the fall 2003 group, the council reported.

Sadonis started applying to law school in fall 2007.

“I would encourage somebody who’s thinking about it to think more about it,” he said. “People just need to make an informed decision and know what they’re getting themselves into.”

People considering law school have to keep in mind what return they will get on their investment, given the debt they may carry coming out of school, said Sweet, the bar association president, who nonetheless remains optimistic.

“I think if it’s what you want to do, you should do it,” she said. “I wouldn’t douse anyone’s dream to become a lawyer.”