In both the public and private sectors, Harvard Law students are facing a tougher job market than in recent memory. This year’s graduating class will see only 80 percent of the firms that participated in the on-campus recruitment process last year return, according to Mark Weber, assistant dean for career services. Meanwhile, starting salaries are down and deferred starting dates are up.

Students on their way to interviews this August as part of the early interview program. A week before classes started, 12,000 interviews took place.

The public sector has also taken an economic hit, says Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service at the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising. Nonprofits and government offices at state and local levels have become more competitive, she says. “The federal government and a few other places are bright spots, but overall the market—and the public sector in particular, which was pretty competitive to begin with—has been affected.”

Both the Office of Career Services and the OPIA have been responding to the tough job market with a number of initiatives.

One of the most visible changes to the recruiting process has been the schedule: Interviews began in late August, almost two months earlier than in years past, and there will be another round in the spring.

In October, Dean Martha Minow announced the establishment of the Holmes Public Service Fellowships, which will fund one year of public service work for approximately 12 graduating students during 2010-11. The fellowships will pay up to $35,000 to support a year of postgraduate legal work at a nonprofit or government agency anywhere in the world. It supplements a range of programs that make it easier for students and alumni to work in the public interest. According to Shabecoff, the experience that such fellowships provide students often makes them significantly more competitive as candidates for jobs afterward.

Meanwhile, OCS and OPIA have been marshaling resources for students—Shabecoff noted increased advising hours and more outreach to employers. And both offices had a packed series of employment-related events and workshops in the fall—including a major career forum weekend and a series of online career advising “webinars,” scheduled by OCS.

The alumni relations department is also assisting current students by connecting them with graduates, teaming up with OCS and OPIA to launch HLS Connect, an alumni advising network portal. As of early November, more than 300 students had registered for the online networking tool.

To sign up for HLS Connect, go to the Networking and Careers website.