Three women -- each a highly successful lawyer plus wife and mother -- came to the Army & Navy Club the other night and told how they have balanced careers and families.

The audience included about 150 members of the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Every woman seemed to savor the tales of professional and personal accomplishment.

And when the stories were over, there was plenty of respect for these women who had done so much. But there was also the realization that life has not worked out so well forevery lawyer, wife and mother in the room.

Rita Davidson stepped up to the polium and leaned into the microphone with the style of a stand-up comedian. Judge Davidson, 52, was appointed in December 1978 to the Maryland Court of Appeals -- the first woman to sit onthat court in its 200-year history. Her appointment followed a long political career during which she was one of the most controversial and outspoken members of then governor Marvin Mandel's cabinet, and six years on the state's Court of Special Appeals. She is married to a lawyer and is the mother of two.

If you ask Rita Davidson how she did it, she will tell you it was thanks to help from her husband David, a man, she said, who "understood" long before women's liberation came around and a husband "who was willing to do everything that needed to be done" so that his wife could pursue her career.

Maybe she was being a romantic, the judge said, or maybe she was overstating her own case. But she told the women that they will need "whatever it takes to establish that relationship" if they want to successfully combine marriage, family and career.

Joan Z. Bernstein, 53, was a classmate -- class of 1951 -- of Judge Davidson's at Yale University law school and is now the general counsel to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"not only did I think I was superwoman, I was brought up to be superwoman," Bernstein said.

Her father told her she could do anything if she was smart and energetic, and had a sense of humor, Bernstein said. So she went to an Ivy league law school, (where her roommate was Patricia M. Wald, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.) Then Berstein got a job on Wall Street, married a doctor and retired for 10 years to raise three children and to be the perfect doctor's wife and mother.

"i do not regret it. I think I learned a great deal," Bernstein said, but added "I cannot say it was intellectually stimulating."

She eventually decided to reenter the legal profession.

"it was the worst time in my life. I was terrified," she said. She was 40 years old and obsessed with making sure enough casseroles were stacked up in the freezer to keep the family from starving if she was away on a business trip. And it was "touch and go for a time" as she and her husband Lionel -- whom she likes to describe as the "king" -- realigned their relationship. It took five or six years before the process was complete.

Brooksley Landau, 40, is a partner in the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter. She is married to a journalist, Jack Landau, and is the mother of two children. Landau is said to be one of the most brilliant antitrust lawyers around, and is widely expected to become the first woman to run for the presidency of the Ammerican Bar Association. She denies she is a superwoman.

"you have to learn to live with compromises," she told the other women lawyers in the audience, and "willingly not do your best as a mother and a lawyer."

Landau had been with Arnold & Porter for three years when she had her first baby. She returned to work full time about a month after the child was born, and was by her own account an "absolute wreck," guilty about splitting her time between baby and law firm.

She announced she was quitting her job, but a senior partner suggested she work part time, three days a week. She was told her salary would increase along with those of her contemporaries in the firm but she could not make partner unless she returned full time to the job. She agreed to the terms, raised her children and pursued her career making telephone calls at home to clients who had no idea she was in the kitchen instead of in the office.

"it was thought they weren't quite ready for that," Landau said.

In the early 1970s, when Landau's class of associates was up for partnerships, she remembered receiving a call at home the night before the decisions were to be made. The caller was a partner who said there was a "considerable body of thought" at Arnold & Porter that "a mistake had been made" in ruling her out for partnership, and could she tell them when she would be ready to return to work full time?

I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back full time," Landau recalled she told him. Her children then were three and five years old.

Landau was elected to the partnership the next day. Later, when the kids both entered school, she did return to work full time.

One thing that has made life manageable for Landau is help -- maids, housekeepers, repairmen, drivers and whoever else it takes to see to the chores that nobody had the time or inclination to do. "try to get as much help as you can possibly afford,"Landau told the women. "ask your husband to help." And, she said, arrange your priorities. Entertainment and friends may have to be set aside at times, Landau said. But, "if you have to chose between a friend and a child, you choose your child."

"kids are remarkably tough . . . and they really do get along very well, even though they are semineglected," said Landau, adding that she saw a noticeable improvement in her children's schoolwork when she returned to her job full time.

When the kids are ready, leaving them on their own, she said "is a very easy thing for a career mother to do."

Later that evening, the members of the Women's Bar sat around small dinner tables at the club and considered what they had heard. They liked it all, but had some doubts about it, too.

"i don't imagine a lot of firms would be as accommodating as (Arnold & Porter) was to Brooksley," said Claudia James, a senior legislative assistant on Capitol Hill. But, she added, maybe she was being cynical.

For Ronni Alkire, an attorney at the Justice Department, the three women had come up with the most traditional female response; "I couldn't have done it without my husband."

And for Natalie Bayless, 33, who is raising her 8-year-old son on her own and working as a lawyer, the formula for survivial is this: "you juggle like hell . . . you put less into your job than you could . . . you make less money than you could . . . and you don't give all to your kid that you could."

The three women who addressed the Women's Bar that night said two things to Natalie Bayless; "my husband is wonderful and supports me" and "i also take off time for my kids."

"Those are two advantages . . . I've never had either one and I'd give my eye-teeth for either one," Bayless said.