A word to the wise in these hard-credit, high-inflation times: You can put off some of your creditors some of the time, but you had better pay your law firm when you owe it money for legal fees.

If you don't, the firm can quit representing you -- as one company recently discovered when it ran up a huge tab with a local firm hired to represent it in a licensing request before a federal agency here.

The need for payment of fees is a recognized aspect of the legal profession, important enough to lawyers -- who, after all, have their own bills to pay -- that it is included in the profession's own code of ethics. That code makes clear an attorney can withdraw from a case if the client "deliberately disregards an agreement or obligation to the lawyer as to expenses or fees."

The recent ruling here on withdrawal for nonpayment of fees came in an opinion by the legal ethics committee of the D.C. Bar, which was asked by a firm if it could withdraw from a case because the client still owed $70,000 on a $90,000 bill. As in all cases here involving an opinion on legal ethics, the names of the firm and the client were kept secret. o

The fee dispute occurred in the middle of the company's request for a government license. As the legal ethics panel pointed out, the object of the litigation was to "attain a commercial advantage for the client."

Meanwhile, the company had repeatedly refused to pay its legal fees to the firm.

The ethics panel noted that the licensing procedure was in two stages and that the first stage was over. This seemed to be a good point for the firm to leave. the ethics board added, so it was allowed to bail out.

The law firm, meanwhile, put another dilemma before the board. It wants to sue the company to recover its fees, and a suit might be construed by the government as evidence of the company's financial instability and therefore affect its ability to get the license sought.

"We can see no reason why the inquiring law firm should be forced to place itself at a substantial economic disadvantage simply to afford its former client a favorable, and perhaps unwarranted, economic advantage," the ethics panel said in clearing the way for the lawsuit.

Regardless of the facts in the situation at issue, the ethics panel seems to be giving the legal community quite a hand in the bill-collecting process. This comes at a time when some firms reportedly already are hiring bill-collecting experts to help nag clients.

But the message comes through loud and clear: Pay your lawyers first.

Some legal experts might see the upcoming trial of the United States vs. AT&T as the possible antitrust trial of the century, but U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene is committed to seeing that it doesn't take that long.

One of Greene's hard and fast rules has been that the trial would begin as scheduled the first week of September. Now, however, Greene has -- for the best of reasons -- moved the starting date to Oct. 27.

In keeping with his wish that the trial be looked on as the model for complex litigation in the future, Greene has instituted or approved a number of innovative techniques.

One of those has been a plan to use a computer printout developed during the pretrial stage to help focus the issues at trial.

It now appears the printout, separating the case into 42 separate "episodes" that in themselves could be treated as individual antitrust actions, cannot be ready without a "drastic reduction in quality," Greene said in an opinion last week.

"While the decision to postpone the beginning of the trial has not been made lightly, I am convinced that an eight-week extension is justified both in relation to the massive nature of this litigation and interms of the pretrial progress that can and, it is expected, will be made in the interim," Greene said.

The flexibility shown by Greene is refreshing at a time when some judges would be much more concerned with sticking to an unrealistic trial date. jIt also shows an inordinate amount of trust in the squads of lawyers working on the case.

That trust should not be abused.