It is a weekday morning in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency and the law students are in uniform.

They are all dressed in suits, dark suits mostly -- charcoal gray or navy blue. Occasionally a maverick arrives wearing something light gray or beige, breaking the dusky pattern amid the foot traffic at the elevators and among the gathering of young men and women perched in a nearby sitting area.

The law students are at the hotel looking for jobs. Upstairs in rooms and suites, representatives from some of the nation's largest law firms are holding 20-minute interview sessions, seeing as many as nine people a day. The firms are looking for third-year law students to hire as associates after graduation next spring, and second-year law students as summer associates.

Although the second-year students will work only an average of six weeks in the summer, the jobs are considered crucial. Large firms can pay as much as $1,200 a week. But more important, if a firm likes a summer associate's work, it is likely to offer a permanent job after graduation.

The usual interview procedure is for a firm to send one or two of its lawyers to interview prospects. Washington firms usually interview local students at their offices. Georgetown and George Washington law schools have so many students participating -- about 1,200 and 900, respectively -- that their interviews are held at hotels. American, Catholic and Howard law schools hold interviews on campus.

If a student makes a good impression, the firm will set up a call-back interview, asking a student to visit the firm's offices to meet one or more of the firm's partners.

This "mating dance," as it is called by some students, is an annual process that begins in late August and continues through October, the first step up the legal ladder for many of the nation's law students.

(The American Bar Association estimates that there are 676,000 practicing attorneys in the United States, and more than 100,000 students enrolled in ABA-approved law schools.)

Nobody involved takes the hiring process lightly. Not the students, some of whom are tens of thousands of dollars in debt from loans; not the big-money firms that view themselves as involved in stiff competition for the best new legal talent; and not the law school placement offices that must coordinate things between students and firms.

"It's grueling," said Andy Hartman, a second-year student at Georgetown. "School work really suffers. I haven't studied in three weeks."

Venita Lang, a third-year law student at Howard, agreed. "It's hectic. Going on a lot of interviews. Working two jobs."

"It's been very tough," said Peter Haas, a second-year law student at George Washington University. "It gets harder as you go through."

Just how nerve-wracking an experience it is for a law student depends on a number of factors. The most important are grade-point average, the school the student attends, and whether the student is in the second or third year.

The firms conducting interviews in the fall are for the most part large metropolitan ones that pay the high salaries to new and summer associates. (According to David J. White & Associates Annual Attorney Salary Survey, the average salary for a new associate at a New York law firm is $46,000, in Washington, $36,000.)

For the majority of these firms, a class ranking is the determining factor in whether the student will be considered seriously for a position.

"The largest, most prestigious firms hire the top 20 percent of the students," said Ina Halperin, who heads the placement office at American University.

"It's such a numbers game," according to Sam Pearson, who graduated from Howard in May. "Sometimes the difference between a B and a C+ is half a point. But that half point can make a big difference to employers."

Susan Sullivan, president of the National Association of Law Placement and assistant dean at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said, "Those of us on the law school side would like to see employers consider factors other than class rank. Our concern has always been that law firms have not conducted thorough, empirical studies on the correlation between class rank and actual performance."

"The firms get so many applications," said Karen Watson Wagner, Legal Career Services director at Catholic University School of Law. "They feel they need some sort of objective basis to decide who to give interviews to."

All this often creates a feast-or-famine situation in which the top law students get more big-firm interviews and call-backs than they know what to do with, and some lower-ranked students have to scramble to get even one.

"It's like interview overkill," said Cindy Jones, a second-year student at American University's Washington College of Law who finished in the top of her class last year. "I miss a lot of class from call-back interviews."

Julie Mark, a third-year student at Georgetown, had a much tougher time of it in her second year in search of a summer associate's position. She did not land a job until May.

"It made me uptight. You're faced with a lot of rejection. I sent lots of resumes out. I did my own traveling. During exams, when I should have been worrying about that, I was trying to find a job."

It is a dynamic that can make for strained relationships among students sometimes.

"I've gotten jealous remarks from some fellow students," Jones said. "They say, 'I'm sick of seeing your name on the {interview} board.' They say it like they're joking, but you know . . . . "

Adam Lipton, president of the student bar association at American who last year had "more call-backs than I had time for," said he tries to be very careful about talking about his success around school. "You never know. You could be talking to someone who has sent out 100 resumes and gotten nothing."

For those students who do not land jobs in the fall or who are not interested in working at a large firm, interviews with small firms and those specializing in public interest law or government will be held later in the school year.

However, as Wagner pointed out, "For students, there's a great press in the environment to get interviews with premier firms. For one, there is the economic factor. Most law students had to go into debt to go to law school. It's not unusual for a student to come out $30,000 in debt."

Cindy Jones commented, "One of the reasons I came to law was to help people. But I've been poor all my life. Maybe in a few years, after working at a large firm, I'll be in a position to do what I want."

Kathy Amoroso, a third-year student at Georgtown said, "With $50,000 in loans to pay off, what alternative do you have? Stay with a low-paying job for six to 10 years?"

Georgetown Law School, as do Harvard and a few other law schools, sponsors a loan forgiveness program in which graduates who take law-related positions that pay lower salaries -- $20,000 to 29,000 per year -- can have the loans reduced or wiped out, depending on how many years they work at the lower rate.

Eric Miller, an associate at the Washington firm of Ross, Dixon and Masback and a graduate of Harvard Law School, has experienced the interview process from both sides. He said he feels that some students use debt as a way of rationalizing to themselves a desire to work at a large firm.

Miller also said that students often "don't ask the hard questions" at call-backs. "You'd be surprised how many of them don't ask how much they'll make. They won't ask an interviewer what parts of the firm's practice the interviewer likes the least, what they find boring."

Miller acknowledged that legal work, especially for new and summer associates, is anything but exciting, "but that's why they call it work."

Lipton said, "I don't want to work in a sweat shop. If I can pay off my loans and have a halfway decent life style, I'm happy. But maybe that arrogance comes from being in the top 10 percent of my class."