Lawyers are not strangers to the world of politics.

However, in keeping with the supposed dignity of the profession, attorneys tend to stay in the background, wheeling and dealing quietly among themselves -- especially when the politics concerns an internal organization like a bar association. You know, keep it just among friends.

The D.C. Bar, the organization to which every attorney in Washington must belong, no longer has that luxury. It is in the middle of a nasty political squabble that will ultimately affect all 32,000 of its members. And it is clearly a public fight, complete with a surprise presidential-elect candidate and a petition drive calling for a memebership-wide referendum that could affect the bar's role in the community for years to come.

As might be expected, the wrangling is -- on the surface, at least -- about money, or more specifically, the amount of dues the bar can charge its captive members.

The bar currently can charge no more than $50 a member, under D.C. Court of Appeals rules. It is already charging that and is being squeezed by inflation just like any other individual or group.

In addition, the bar has decided that it wants to purchase and operate a badly needed law library for its members. To make that purchase and to meet inflation, according to its board of governors, the dues for next year must be at least $75 a member.

The bar has to get permission from the D.C. Court of Appeals to charge any more than $50. Therefore, the bar's board voted to ask the court for a higher dues ceiling.

No one seems to argue against a raised dues ceiling as such. But, while it was at it, the board decided to go all the way to $150, even through only $75 would be charged the first year.

That is where the bar ran into trouble. The bar's leaders, notably Bar President John Pickering, said the higher ceiling was needed so the bar would not have to go back to the court every time it wanted to raise dues -- to give the bar's leadership a little "running room," so to speak.

Some members of the bar said, however, that they did not want the governing board to have so much "running room." They asked the board to schedule a referendum on dues, but the board refused.

So, the anti-$150 crowd took another route. A petition was circulated in hopes of finding the necessary 300 lawyers who would back a referendum on the issue. The group found 906 signers quickly, and so a membership-wide vote seems inevitable under the bar's rules.

(One candiate for president-elect of the organization said it is "demeaning" to the bar that the money fight is drawing so much attention and that he hoped it did not polarize the bar. Bar critics say, however, that, demeaning or not, the full membership should be allowed to vote on how high the dues level can be in a compulsory organization like the D.C. Bar.)

The anti-$150 group questions the need for many bar-supported programs and says the organization seems to be expanding its services without membership approval.

Meanwhile, the dues ceiling issue has become the focal point of what would otherwise be a rather dull campaign for president-elect of the organization. It was clearly the main issue at the presidential forum last Thursday attended by 100-150 bar members (as one attendee noted, a rather poor turnout for a group with 32,000 members, but still three times more than showed up last year for a similar program).

Three of the candidates --Robert E. Jordan III, of Steptoe and Johnson; Stuart J. Land, of Arnold and Porter, and David Epstein, of Berry, Eqstein, Sandstrom and Blatchford -- are running with the blessings of a bar nominating committee. The fourth, James J. Bierbower of Bierbower and Rockefeller, entered the race late through a petition process.

Each had five minutes to talk, and each took most of that time talking about the dues ceiling issue.

Jordan: "I don't think it should be a one-issue campaign," but "I'm not sure the $150 idea was right." He said he had no part in the process that led to the $150 request, but that it was clear to him that some dues increase is necessary.

Land: The dues issue "is very much a part of this election," and the need for a dues increase is not being brought in "by a bunch of spending and wild programs." Land, who worked on the library acquisition project for the bar, said, "I'm not a spender," but that the board needs some leeway in its budgetary process.

Epstein: "I think the bar has followed by and large the moderate course," and has been "cut down to size" by earlier membership referenda stopping it from "sticking its nose into everything." Epstein took no solid position on the dues issue, but instead pointed out that bierbower -- who is now the leadng anti-$150 candidate -- actually voted in favor of the plan while on the governing board.

Bierbower. "True, I voted for the $150 plan," but only because the board was at the time considering a proposal to raise the dues celling even higher, to $200. "We ought to get a little democratic about it," Bierbower said. "Thirty-two thousand members ought to get to vote on it."

He said that as president of other bar groups, "I've lived within budgets . . .I now think $75 is enough."

At this point, there is no clear favorite for president-elect. The Court of Appeals is considering the $150 dues ceiling request. The bar leadership has pending before it the petition for a membership-wide vote on a $75 ceiling. h

And, 32,000 attorneys are cautiously watching, with one hand on their wallet.