Last June, before Billy Carter's dealings with Libya erupted into the headlines, White House counsel Lloyd Cutler advised the First Brother that he "probably needed a Washington Lawyer." Carter says Cutler then came up with the names of "four or five law firms" for him to consider.

The law firm of Billy Carter's choice was Shea & Gardner, known around Washington as a haven for intellectually elite, highly skilled craftsmen who had quietly earned a solid reputation for top-quality work.

From inside the firm, Carter picked attorneys Stephen J. Pollak, the current president of the D.C. Bar, is a former assistant attorney general for civil rights division at the Justice Department. Ruth is a former Watergate prosecutor. Billy Carter says he was swayed, in part, by the fact that Pollak and Ruth had defended White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordon against charges that he used cocaine at Studio 54, a New York discotheque.

Notable cases are not new to Shea & Gardner, where the lawyers like to keep their business low-key. They defended the Iranian government against American insurance companies who wanted to recover damages for Iran, and they have argued in support of coal producers who are fighting tough rules on strip mining. They have watched over multinational corporations under scrutiny for overseas payments, helped set new legal standards for the defense in criminal insanity cases and represented D.C Jail prisoners who said bad conditions at the prison justified their escape attempts.

The Carter case, however, blasted Shea & Gardner into the Edward Bennett Williams school of front-page law. And now, the small circle of Washington lawyers who specialize in high visibility, white-collar defense work are wondering if the new kid on the block is there to stay.

There's no secret about how Shea & Gardner got on Lloyd Cutler's list of nominees for Billy Carter's legal counsel. The least of the links is that Cutler used to practice law with John Pickering at what was Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. John Pickering was the man that Stephen Pollak succeeded as president of the local bar. As to how the firm acquired the Jordan case, no one is saying, but it's well-known that Henry Ruth is an expert on the role of special prosecutors -- a key issue for Jordan.

"Before Hamilton Jordan, no one would have thought to go to them for fancy white-collar stuff," one lawyer commented about Shea & Gardner. But once a firm gets on that track, meaning that the client commands media attention (no question for the president's top adviser) and the lawyers are successful (a special prosecutor concluded that no charges should be brought against Jordan) the practice becomes self-sustaining. The new clients follow the headlines.

"One effect on visibility cases is you begin to get a reputation. You begin to come to mind when people are hunting around for a lawyer," said Shea & Gardner partner John D. Aldock, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington.

At Shea & Gardner "the visibility aspect is new . . . But the firm has been advising people on difficult problems -- criminal, civil, legal or not -- for more than 30 years," Aldock said.

The firm was founded in 1947 by Francis M. Shea, now 75, who had been an assistant attorney general of the United States and a law professor and Warner W. Gardner, now 70, who was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harlan F. Stone, a special assistant attorney general, solicitor at both the Labor and Interior departments and once an assistant secretary of the Interior.

Shea & Gardner is a middle-size firm by Washington standards -- 24 partners and 11 associates -- the kind of place where everybody's name appears on the firm's letterhead. Five new associates will start work in September -- the firm usually hires three a year -- and a sixth will come on board in February "we need them" Aldock said.

The firm is "very fussy about who they hire," one local lawyer said. By one estimate, close to 50 percent of the lawyers at Shea & Gardner have clerked for the Supreme Court and all but a very small number of the other lawyers have clerked for some federal trial or appellate judge.

At Shea & Gardner's quarters at 1800 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the media attention that swelled around the Carter case no doubt caused a stir among the deliberate and "cerebral" attorneys there. When newsmen boarded the elevators and invaded the corridors "we thought that was a little inappropriate," one partner commented.

And there was a small commotion when Billy Carter sat down to eat his lunch one day in the building's cafeteria. But generally, one associate said, the Shea & Gardner lawyers were mostly amused and entertained by this peculiar new public demension to the firm's work.

Meanwhile, Pollak and Ruth have begun work for another high visibility client, the National Bank of Washington, whose loan practices are now under investigation by a federal grand jury. But, unlike the Jordan or Carter cases, NBW may have arrived at Shea & Gardner by way of the more traditional route. Pollak and later Ruth have both represented the United Mine Workers pension fund, and the United Mine Workers of America is NBW's major stockholder.

As to whether the publicity of the Carter case will lead clients to the Shea & Gardner door, Pollak is not sure.

"Why don't you call us in six months and we'll tell you if they're rolling in," he said.