The audience had begun to growl before the D.C. Bar President Stephen J. Pollak even arrived at the lawyers lounge at the D.C. Superior Court one day last week. On a blackboard in a corner of the room was a neatly printed statement: "The D.C. Bar has @$1,000,000 in the bank."

The occasion was a lunch hour meeting of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, called to hear Pollak give his pitch against two referenda up for vote by the 26,000 members of the bar by Dec. 15. The first referendum would keep a $75 ceiling on annual dues (members now pay $65 for a budget of $1.8 million); the second would limit the bar's authority to spend dues money to four specific areas -- prinicpally licensing and discipline of lawyers.

The bar board of governors wants a $150 ceiling. Last February, the board asked the D.C Court of Appeals to authorize that increase. The trouble is the board didn't get around to asking the membership what it thought before it asked the court for that increase. That political faux pas was fuel for a small group of bar dissidents who hustled up more than enough signatures to get the two referenda before the members.

Now the battle of the pros and cons has turned into a war of extremes. And the bar hierarchy is running hard -- and scared.

Pollak and the seven past presidents of the bar say the money limit in referendum No. 1 "would slowly strangle the bar" and rule out plans to purchase a law library now housed in the federal court and owned by the D.C. Bar Association, the voluntary bar. They say No. 2 "seeks to kill the bar outright" by cutting off money to its public interest projects, its continuing legal education program and its publications.

The bar says it can't buy the library and won't be able to support ongoing projects for long at the $75 ceiling. Bar president-elect James J. Bierbower, who is not a graduate of the traditional school of bar presidents, supports the $75 ceiling. He even thinks they can buy the library at that rate. Meanwhile there is a lot of grousing that the bar budget is bloated and that the board has been spoiled by easy money.

Supporters of No. 1 say the bar and its leadership have run amok with money the members are forced to pay because every lawyer who practices in the District of Columbia must belong to the D.C. Bar.

As to Referendum No. 2, the supporters say that as a compulsory institution, the bar is legally prohibited from spending dues money on anything other than those activities in which there is a so-called "state interest" such as attorney admissions to the bar and discipline. Support of the other activities infringes on the members' first amendment right of free association, says Nathan Dodell, an assistant U.S. Attorney and an arch opponent of underwriting bar activities with dues money.

One might ask why the bar board decided it was necessary to ask the appeals court to double the dues ceiling in the first place. Board members will tell you that it threatens the independence of the bar to have to go to the court too often and beg for money. They'll also tell you that appeals court Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman flatly told the board that they wouldn't even get the $75 ceiling (which the appeals court approved earlier this year) unless they promised to buy a law library. By upping the dues ceiling to $150, the board members figure they will set a margin that will let them stay away from Newman and his court for maybe as long as eight years.

The board members insist this doesn't mean dues will suddenly take a quantum leap. A budget increase would require a public hearing before it could take effect. Rather, they say the higher ceiling is a long-term hedge against inflation and a promise of a term of independence from the court.

If the bar has a beef with the court about independence, it would seem the way to resolve it is not to avoid the issue for eight years. In retrospect, some board members will admit privately that maybe they got carried away with the independence crusade.

What really irks the members who want to put a leash on the bar leadership is a letter, signed by bar officers, sent to the court of appeals along with the petition for the $150 ceiling. Given the "persuasive justifications" for at least a $150 ceiling, the letter said, "there is no sound reason for the court to postpone action to await the results of the referendum which the bar will now conduct."

Maybe the bar officers thought Nathan Dodell would miss that one. He didn't.

"To me this is our officers saying we know better than these dumb clucks," Dodell said about the bar officers' letter. The officers are "in effect thumbing their noses at the membership," Dodell said.

All things considered, it might not be a bad move to vote yes on No. 1. The board handled the whole affair poorly, they tried to side-step the membership and they got caught. Maybe they ought to take a year to regroup and try again. The debate over the referenda has generated a lot of healthy discussion about the bar and its activities and prompted some new ideas -- all of which the bar leadership should take some time to consider.

Referendum No. 2, however, is a mistake. It would virtually cut off the bar's financial support of valuable public service projects, particularly the lawyer referral service, which helps local consumers get answers to their legal problems. And it would threaten the strength of the continuing legal education program, attended by some 5,000 members of the bar last year. And it would stop publication of the District Lawyer and the Bar Report, both solid and inexpensive alternatives to the popular legal newspapers and important means of communication between the bar and its members.

The bar has taken a decidedly broader view of its responsibilities than Dodell would prefer. The bar's mandate, set out by the appeals court when the bar was organized in 1972, is to carry out and improve the administration of justice and to foster high ideals of integrity, competence and public service. Steve Pollak told the Superior Court lawyers that Referendum No. 2 would "permanently change the nature of the bar." That should not be done.

It's one thing to make the bar more accountable to its members, and more cost-conscious, by voting yes for Referendum No. 1. It's something else to cut off eight years of good work, work that has benefited both the bar and the community, by supporting referendum No. 2. It would turn the bar into a copshop for lawyers, a self-serving institution to keep lawyers out of trouble. c

The members of the bar have a greater obligation than that -- to themselves and to the community.