David Koller is a bright, hyperkinetic 31-year-old lawyer who has spent the last seven years working his way up, moving from one firm to another in search of more challenging work and higher salaries to pay down his huge law school loans.

His progress on that path came to an abrupt halt March 2.

That is when the vicious downsizing rolling through the legal industry caught up with him. Just three months after receiving a glowing performance review, he was called into the office of the managing partner of Riper Riley Hollin & Colagreco, a politically prominent Chester County firm where he had worked since September 2007, and fired. The managing partner said that because Koller had the least seniority, he was being let go.

He was given one month's severance and asked to quickly clean out his desk.

"I remember him [the managing partner] saying I am really sorry to do this to you," said Koller, a voluble, quick-witted baseball and basketball fan who looks a bit like the 1950s and '60s actor Sal Mineo or a cast member of Friends.

"I said was it anything I had done, and he said 'No, we just decided in light of the way things are with the economy, it is a decision we had to make.' The one thing I feared was telling my wife."

There was a time a generation or so ago when having a law degree was practically a guarantee of lifetime employment for anyone who wanted to put in the hours and stroke clients. But as the story of David Koller and thousands of other lawyers who have been laid off in the past year amply shows, those days are long gone.

With the legal market in the throes of one of its worst recessions ever, young lawyers like Koller struggle with the uncertainty that their jobs and careers might end at any time. Or maybe never really start.

And there's one other important difference. Law school tuitions now are so high that students graduate with huge debts: more than $100,000 on average if they went to private universities, less for graduates of public schools.

Koller himself still has about $90,000 in law school debt, seven years after graduating from Villanova.

His response to being laid off has been to act on a long-held dream of setting up his own firm. To do that, he's affiliated with the firm of a close friend, Alan Nochumson, and is sharing office space with him on Walnut Street in Center City.

Koller already has been referred a half-dozen employment litigation cases and he is developing plans for a practice that focuses on the needs of a burgeoning demographic group, the elderly.

For Koller and many other young lawyers, the single overriding concern is finding a job that pays enough to make a dent in the law school debt, what Koller calls "the nut."

But the really big salaries that have gotten so much attention in the legal world, $160,000 to start at the biggest firms in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, and about $145,000 at the larger firms in Philadelphia, only go to a sliver of each year's class of law school graduates.

According to the National Association of Legal Career Professionals, which tracks compensation and employment of law school graduates, only 16 percent of the Class in 2007 earned at the high end of the scale. About 38 percent of the class earned $55,000 or less.

And the fight for employment can evolve into a nerve-wracking quest in which young lawyers constantly weigh the need for fat salaries to pay down their loans against the likelihood that the jobs with higher alaries, at least at the beginning, will involve menial tasks with little client contact or possibility for career development.

That, Koller says, is what bothered him the most. In fact, it has characterized much of his young career - a series of job moves, too little professional satisfaction, too much mental and emotional stress.

"I have friends who have been out of law school for several years and they still cannot get jobs," he said. "I have had thoughts over the past several years like, 'Why did I ever become a lawyer?' Because it really is a money train.

"If you don't end up going down a certain path, like the big-firm path at least for a couple of years to pay off your student loans, you are always looking to recover."

It was for that reason that a short time after he graduated from Villanova, he turned down an offer of a position in the Philadelphia public defender's office - the $35,000-a-year salary wasn't enough to pay his living costs while also paying down his loans.

So he blanketed the legal world with resumes in 2002. But the big firms were ratcheting back in a tough economic climate and Koller, who scored in the 99th percentile on his law school admissions test, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and was both student body president and law school commencement speaker at Villanova, didn't get any bites.

After a few months, he lowered his sights and accepted a job with a small litigation firm in King of Prussia. It turned out to be a good move. Despite the firm's small size, it represented Wal-Mart and other huge companies in employment cases and other matters. From the start, Koller found himself interacting almost daily with clients. And, unlike young lawyers at larger firms, which are reluctant to hand over too much responsibility to junior staff, Koller regularly appeared in court to argue motions. He took depositions and strategized with clients, tasks typically handled only by senior "relationship partners" at larger firms.

"I was working for big-time clients and getting tons of court experience," Koller said. "I started to think this was the way the practice of law always is, and I was wrong."

After 30 months, Koller left that firm, McDonnell & Associates P.C., for a job with Astor Weiss Kaplan & Mandel L.L.P. in Center City. He wanted more money and a shot at more sophisticated cases and he says he got that at Astor Weiss.

But all the while, he kept his eye peeled for new opportunities, jobs with more autonomy, standing and, of course, money. He said what he really wanted was a shot at building up a practice and having an ownership interest in a firm.

When a legal recruiter called him in 2007 to ask whether he would consider working for a firm, Riley Riper Hollin & Colagreco, that was offering a higher salary and a position in which his main focus would be employment law, a field that Koller found deeply interesting, he was tempted. The job was in the suburbs, which he found unappealing, but he decided to go for an interview anyway.

He went and he was wowed. The partners were charming, the work involved employment law, which he loved, and the office, while in the suburbs, seemed to offer the prospect of a fresh start.

It wasn't long, though, before Koller started having doubts. The promised employment litigation that motivated him so much didn't materialize. Instead, he found himself assigned to collection cases, sending threatening letters on behalf of clients seeking to be paid.

There were cultural differences, too.

As a practicing Jew, accustomed to eating corned beef, coleslaw and pickles at office lunches, he said he felt slightly out of place in Chester County, where at one reception, a roast suckling pig, head and all, was served and held the place of honor in the middle of a buffet table.

He enjoyed amusing friends with tales about his firm that he said reminded him of TV's The Office.

One supervisor, according to Koller, had three categories of work which he designated as "dippa dappa do" for something he wanted done quickly, "middle of the road" for a matter of modest urgency and "immaculate conception" for cases that required the highest degree of attention.

He found some of the other expressions and mannerisms irksome, such as when he approached his boss with a proposal that he settle a case for $10,000 and the response was "Yeah Dave, and I want to have a 30-inch waistline. It ain't gonna happen."

His boss, moreover, habitually mispronounced his name, calling him "Kollers."

But the biggest disappointment tracks closely with the complaints of young associates everywhere: He simply wasn't doing anything interesting.

The firm's managing partner, Ed Hollin, said it is the firm's policy never to publicly discuss personnel matters. But he said it seeks a diverse atmosphere that is welcoming to all lawyers, noting that he himself and the firm's hiring partner are Jewish.

In the months before the layoff, Koller says he knew he had been on thin ice. The work had started to dry up, and there had been a series of layoffs and departures at the firm. Moreover, while the money was good, he began to fear that he might evolve into little more than an office drone, with little initiative or imagination, satisfied only to be paid.

As Hollin was telling him that he would be let go, Koller said he was silently thankful.

He spent his first few days out of work combing the legal Web sites for employment and he considered applying for a job with another firm.

But he quickly decided against that.

He feels liberated running his own firm, and wants to develop a practice that concentrates on issues affecting the elderly, because he says there are very few lawyers his age in that space. In the meantime, he faces daunting financial challenges. His month's severance recently ran out. And he and his wife, who reside in Chestnut Hill, now are living on savings and her part-time salary.

Yet he remains optimistic. He says he is having fun designing his Web site and is eager to offer clients lower rates and alternative billing arrangements to prove his worth, something he could never do at someone else's firm.

"When you have your own firm, you can make those calls," Koller said.

Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com