Even in a state as teeped in tradition as Virginia, the savings and loan industry is changing.

It has no choice. If the industry -- in Virginia and elsewhere -- is to survive difficult economic conditions and adjust to the deregulation signals coming out of Washington, it will be forced to compete with other financial institutions in ways it has historically fought.

"We're resisting the hell out of deregulation," said Mark Saurs, the executive director of the Virginia Savings and Loan League, which held its annual convention here last week.

But that resistance and anger about a recent federal decision implementing this year's banking bill is bound to give way to the competitive pressure that face all financial institutions and S&LS in particular.

Richard Lawton, chairman of the Washington-Lee S&L, the 21-branch Mclean-based institution, said that when Jan. 1 rolls around and S&LS can expand consumer loan powers, offer NOW accounts and even get into the credit-card business, he plans to move Washington-Lee into those fields in a big way.

"We're gearing up for the whole thing," said Lawton, the incoming president of the National Savings and Loan League. "I want to survive, and I think all of the S&LS in the country are going to do this because they want to make it."

Because Lawton runs an S&L with assets of about $350 million, one of the two largest in the state, he may be unique. Smaller S&LS are not likely to change their ways all that quickly, executives say.

"I can't imagine all our members getting into credit cards any time soon," said Saurs. "Some major consumer leading will go on right away, but in all probability most of our members will study these things very closely and then act."

But of the more than 120 S&L executives who gathered here last week, most were cautions about predicting the industry's future. They say they are equipped for the savings and housing money drain that has affected most of them, as long as the government stops giving what they view as breaks to insitutions offering money market certificates.

"It's a hell of a tough period because of the pressure coming out of Washington," Saurs said.