Check out the bulletin board at George Washington University's law school, the one with all those little green cards of the law firms that are canceling their fall recruiting forays -- 59 in all last week.

The names include some of the legal industry's high and mighty: New York's Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy and Willkie Farr & Gallagher; and D.C.'s own Washington, Perito & Dubuc.

And it's not just these firms and not only George Washington University. Witness this letter to students from Harvard University Law School's recruiting chief, June Thompson.

"There should be no sense of panic," Thompson wrote last month, "but you are probably aware that this may not be like other recent recruiting seasons."

Indeed, this campus recruiting season may be the best predictor yet of what the future holds for law firms. Certainly the firms' partners won't tell you.

Judging by the number of campus no-shows and firms that are appearing but cutting back on the students they will see, recruiting is down -- not too surprising given the economic news of late.

From Harvard to Georgetown, from American University to Berkeley's Boalt Hall, law students, dreaming of $80,000 offers for their first year on the job, have met the future and they are scared.

Mitchell Mackler, a third-year law student at George Washington, says a sense of "yuppie envy" is taking hold of those who fear they've missed the boom. "It's like 'Mom and Dad, why did you have me so late?' "

In a field where competition is intense and perception can quickly become reality, neither schools nor law firms are anxious to admit to any weakness.

"It is embarrassing and mortifying when it happens," said New York University assistant dean Jane Thieberger, the "it" being law firm cancellations. "It means that none of us wants the other schools to know.

"I can assure you it's not happening here," Thieberger asserted, "Honest."

Yet cutbacks there are. Georgetown reports "a slight downturn" in firms coming to recruit; Berkeley a 10 percent reduction compared with 1989, although recruiting director Lujuana Treadwell insisted it is only firms that never had much luck wooing her students from California that are cutting back.

American University, which had seen a steady increase of recruiters each year in the recent past, reports a leveling off.

And at Harvard, a record 38 firms suddenly called to say they wanted to interview only second-year students for summer programs, shunning new third-year prospects for permanent jobs.

Why do law firms cancel? There are a number of reasons: loss of legal business; a healthy response to the general economic downturn; or the fact that students, fearful of being left jobless, have been accepting offers at a record pace, making heavy fall recruiting schedules unnecessary.

And as news of associate layoffs in New York and Washington ricochets around the industry, the hiring partner for one major firm offers this simple explanation: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if firms are letting people go, they're not going to be hiring a lot of people."

The ailing law firm economies of Boston and New York have encouraged students to look to Washington. Several law firms here report that students are flooding them with applications -- one subject the firms are pleased to discuss.

Arnold & Porter is being courted by the University of Chicago to expand its recruiting schedule. Covington & Burling has record sign-ups at Yale. Crowell & Moring is swamped with applications from American University and other schools.

And at Harvard, where many students normally gravitate to New York firms, an astonished Thompson reports an enhanced interest in the nation's capital.

Even government is enjoying increased popularity. Applications to the Justice Department are up more than 40 percent over last year; to the Securities and Exchange Commission, up 56 percent.

College recruiting officials attribute this to the students' view that government work is stable -- a charitable notion given Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and the federal budget cutbacks.

Of course, these are only clues and no one will know for sure about the health of the law firms and the would-be associates until the hiring begins -- and ends.

It is still mid-season. "As long as people are getting call-backs, panic does not set in," said New York University's Thieberger. "We are waiting now for offers."

Justice on the Campus

Retired Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan Jr., who shaped the law and influenced fellow justices for more than three decades, may get a crack at molding the minds of future lawyers at the University of Chicago next year.

Brennan has agreed -- if his health permits -- to conduct a series of "conversations" with Chicago law professors on, well, just about anything he wants, says Dean Geoffrey Stone.

Brennan will likely come up against his former law clerk and ideological adversary, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner, a match sure to ignite some sparks.

"My secret hope," says Stone, another former Brennan clerk, "is that we could ... edit this into a book to preserve his thoughts that would otherwise be lost."

Have Disaster, Will Travel

John P. Coale -- the D.C. mass disaster lawyer that the plaintiffs' bar loves to hate -- has split from his firm, Coale, Kananack & Murgatroyd. He is forming a small firm with his wife, criminal defense attorney Greta Van Susteren, and Phillip Allen, also a mass disaster specialist.

Coale, who drew the ire of other lawyers with his aggressive tactics after the Bhopal, India, disaster, seems to thrive on controversy. "People have not liked lawyers since there were lawyers," he once told reporters. "And they are never going to like lawyers."

Wanted: Bar Bouncer

D.C. Bar Counsel Thomas E. Flynn, the man who pursues other lawyers gone astray for the bar's disciplinary system, has resigned, effective Jan. 1. The widely respected Flynn, who has held the job since 1987, plans to retire.

The bar has been flooded with 79 applications and may have a tough job choosing a successor. The job seekers include such notables as Frederick B. Abramson, former president of the D.C. Bar.


Ex-federal prosecutor William Pease, D.C's version of Scott Turow, has his first novel out -- "Playing the Dozens" -- and it seems every crack prosecutor and defense lawyer in town "knows" precisely who Pease used as the model for the very political U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Joslin.

But instead of zeroing in on one, their suspects include current top prosecutor Jay Stephens, as well as predecessors Joseph diGenova, Carl Rauh and Stanley Harris, now a federal judge -- men who have exactly nothing in common.

So what's the right answer?

"This," Pease wrote in a special note in his book, "is a work of fiction." He's sticking to that story.