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“But the high-profit [corporate] transaction practices have really taken it on the chin,” he said.

Some transaction lawyers are now being “retooled” as bankruptcy lawyers, Mr. Landau said.

New York, San Francisco and Chicago are experiencing some of the most legal layoffs, Ms. Finn said.

Silicon Valley-based Wilson Sonsini, known for technology, biotechnology and venture-capital work, laid off 45 lawyers and 68 other staff members across the country in January.

That wave of layoffs included Ms. Conoboy in the Washington office. She thought a move to mergers and acquisitions would boost her resume and her career, but the financial meltdown has frozen the corporate deal market.

“They promised that l’d have more work than I could handle when I got there, but I never did get swamped,” said Ms. Conoboy, 36, a William & Mary School of Law graduate who now lives in Alexandria, La., but is looking for work nationally.

As a highly paid senior associate new to the firm and to mergers and acquisitions, “I was obviously the one they were going to pick” to let go, she said.

“People keep saying I should be more upset, but it wasn’t that surprising to me,” said Ms. Conoboy. “I like the firm, I like the people. What can you do, you know? I have a really good resume, and it’s not the end of the world.”

As the market imploded for complex securities known as collateralized debt obligations, capital-markets lawyers such as Sam Smith of Charlotte, N.C., found himself collateral damage.

Mr. Smith, 34, of Charlotte, N.C., started with Covington & Burling in Washington in 2004, fresh out of law school, before moving to Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Charlotte.

Laid off in August, he started a Web site, www.rateapartner .com, to help younger lawyers evaluate the firms and partners who might hire them.

“Ultimately, what’s going to make or break their careers are the partners they are going to work for,” Mr. Smith said.

He is “still trying to figure out” his career alternatives and has been doing some pro bono legal work, but he knows one thing for sure: He doesn’t want to work for a partner who isn’t top-rated on his site.

Though the federal government is still hiring, in areas such as health care, food regulation and securities enforcement, the jobs are being overwhelmed by an army of lawyers.

“Many people are considering the government,” said Jessica Heywood, director of the career center at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. “But those jobs are getting increasingly competitive, and people are getting frustrated with the application process.”

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