Across the country last year, 46,000 newly minted law school graduates hit the job market bearing the crushing weight of their student-loan debts.

Nine months later, only 27,000 had found full-time jobs as lawyers. At two major Bay Area law schools -- Golden Gate University and the University of San Francisco -- only one in four had settled into law jobs.

"Legal education is in crisis," said Frank Wu, chancellor at Hastings College of the Law. "Nobody has seen anything like this. There are too many lawyers, there are too many law students and there are too many law schools."

Once considered a sure bet for a stable, well-compensated career, law has become a riskier gamble. It's not only harder to become a lawyer now, it has become much more costly. As California and other states withdraw support from public universities and schools chase rankings that reward them for spending more, tuition goes up and up, forcing students to borrow $100,000 or even $200,000 to earn their degrees.

A law degree from UC Berkeley now costs $150,000 in tuition and fees, double the cost of just five years ago. Hefty hikes at other Bay Area law schools have brought their costs to similar levels.

"I have a huge looming debt and no job, so it is really high-anxiety and stressful," said Lila Milford, a third-year Santa Clara University law student looking for intellectual property work in trademark or copyright law.

"I knew it was going to be challenging," she said. "I didn't know how challenging."

Would-be applicants are taking note; across the country, the number of people applying to law school has fallen by nearly a third since 2010, the lowest number in more than a decade.

Law schools are under pressure from all sides: Prospective students balk at the high tuition, while firms assert that graduates leave school unequipped to practice law. Even President Barack Obama made waves last month by a suggesting that law school take two years, instead of three.

"The third year they'd be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren't getting paid that much," said Obama, who once taught at the University of Chicago Law School. "But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student."

Last week, an American Bar Association task force described the crisis in stark terms, noting mounting financial pressures on law schools, high student debt, years of sharply falling applications, and "the predicament of so many students and recent graduates who may never procure the sort of employment they anticipated when they enrolled."

Stanford University law degree student Cassandra Kildow asks a question during Bob Gordon’s law class Sept. 24, 2013.
Stanford University law degree student Cassandra Kildow asks a question during Bob Gordon's law class Sept. 24, 2013. (Dai Sugano/Staff)

The report called for sweeping changes in legal education, such as greater flexibility in what law schools must teach and how, and new licensing programs for basic legal services now too expensive for most Americans to afford. The financial crisis forced the bar association to consider solutions that had been floating around for decades, said Bob Gordon, a professor at Stanford.

"I think it's pretty clear it's going to be a shake-up in this market, given the drastic decline in applications," he said.

Like many other fields, the legal profession has been upended by do-it-yourself software, overseas outsourcing, public sector cuts and corporate clients demanding that big law firms lower their charges.

Faculty at Hastings, UC Berkeley and Santa Clara University said they are responding by giving their students more practical experience during their second and third years by adding legal clinics and "externships" with local organizations and companies.

This past fall, Hastings cut the size of its first-year law class by more than 20 percent. It was the only responsible thing to do, its chancellor said, given the number of deeply indebted lawyers in a troubled job market. Santa Clara is doing far more to help its students network and find jobs, said Bradley Joondeph, a law professor and associate dean of its law school.

Law student James Giacchetti -- who was able to work under attorneys in Santa Clara County's misdemeanor court -- said he is determined to establish a career as a public defender, even if it's tough going at first.

"It's not as if we entered law school blindly," said Giacchetti, a second-year law student at Santa Clara. "It's not a bad thing to have a (law degree). You have to consider that this is an investment in a career and not just a short-term way of making money."

Joondeph and Wu said some of their graduates are finding high-paying work in new jobs where legal training is preferred but not required, such as compliance officers who oversee employee privacy policies. About 13 percent of Santa Clara's graduates landed one of those jobs, full-time, in addition to the 45 percent who found full-time legal work.

The uncertain law school payoff -- though stressful for all involved -- has led to at least one welcome change: Professors are noticing that more of their students seem to be actually interested in practicing law.

"I don't think that law school is any longer the refuge it was 20 years ago for the liberal arts student who graduates from college and isn't sure what he or she wants to do," said Charles Weisselberg, a UC Berkeley law professor and associate dean.

"People are more deliberate ... and that's a good thing."

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.