Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce Lamberth is a tight-fisted government lawyer who is the last few years has done more than anyone to unite Washington civil rights lawyers.

The only problem is: They are all united against him.

The reason is Lamberth's insistence on holding legal fees well below that lawyers consider reasonable when they win cases against the federal agencies that Lamberth's office defends in job discrimination suits.

By law, when the government loses a civil rights suit, it pays the winning lawyer's fees. The courts ultimately decide, but the government can challange the requested dollar amount. Lamberth often does.

Civil rights lawyers use words like "insane," "outrageous" and "ignorant" in describing Lamberth's campaign. They accuse him of trying to harass civil rights lawyers and stop them from litigating.

Lamberth heatedly denies the accusations. He says he's only trying to protect the taxpayer from paying exorbitant fees.

The Lamberth Affair -- if you will -- is a complex and nasty little dispute largely about something lawyers would rather not discuss -- how much they are worth.

Five months ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals said in a case called Copeland v. Marshall that the government should pay the prevailing "market rate." But the court did not define what the market rate should be. In the meantime, Lamberth says they are worth $60 an hour -- tops. That goes for anyone -- Edward Bennett Williams, Lloyd Cutler, anyone. And many D.C. lawyers charge $100 to $300 per hour.

Every other government agency, including the Justice Department, settles lawyers' fees on a case-by-case basis, often for much more than $60 an hour.

The Postal Service, for example, hired Joe Califano Jr. at $150 an hour last June. That's the Postal Service's problem, as far as Lamberth's concerned. He maintains that in these cases the government just should not have to pay hte fees some lawyers get these days.

Lamberth and many of the lawyers handling civil rights cases have met a few times to try to resolve the problem. The debates have been heated.

Look, Lamberth says, $60 an hour amounts to a gross salay of $120,000 a year. Pretty decent, he figures, compared with his own salary of $50,000.

The lawyers say that's ridiculous. Lamberth hasn't the foggiest notion of what it costs to try a case. He's never done it. What's more, his calculations overlook the fact that if the lawyers lose a case, which often happens, they get nothing.

Okay, Lamberth acknowledges, he's never been in private practice, and his own office rarely figures out what it costs to litigate a given case.

But the "overwhelming majority of cases have been settled" at the $60 rate, he counters, so the figure can't be that far off.

"That doesn't tell us about the market rate," one lawyer told him, "[it] just [tells] what you're willing to screw us for."

The lawyers bitterly point out that Lamberth himself determines the "market" by demanding lawyers either settle for $60 or fight a protracted court battle. The large proportion of cases settled merely indicates that many are willing to concede rather than wait for years for their money, they say.

Some don't concede, and about a dozen cases involving fights over fees are pending in the federal district court.

June Kalijarvi, whose small firm specializes in employment discrimination cases, says the firm has about $100,000 tied up in legal fees from five cases she won against the government, some as long as three years ago. Fighting Lamberth in court has cost another $25,000 -- which the government will pay if she wins.

The lawyers say Lamberth's hard-line policy forces both sides to spend even more money on fee litigation. In the long run, that winds up costing taxpayers more.

For example, Joel Bennett, another attorney in private practice, had a case the government was willing to settle out of court. But the U.S. attorney's office protested paying him a $75 rate for a total fee of $750.

Bennett took the fee dispute to court, won and collected $3,700 in fees.

Three district court judges -- Harold H. Greene, Charles Richey and Gerhard Gesell -- already have assessed a market rate of $75 to $85 an hour in similar cases.

Lamberth, a jovial fellow whose large belly, small moustache and round, ruddy face make him look like a young Oliver Hardy, acknowledges that the court might set a fee higher than he would like. But he's fighting for a "cap" of some sort on these fees, he says. If he gets that, his investment in time, effort -- and the taxpayers' money -- will pay off in the long run.

Lamberth is uncomfortable playing the ogre. He says he would rather deal with "real" issues: "We don't want t litigate this crap either."