The conservative wing of the D.C. Bar, long out in the cold and resenting it, seems on the road to a comeback -- especially since the membership gave a thumping to the bar's liberal leadership and voted to restrict severely the use of dues money to fund bar activities.

The next challenge for the conservatives will be to keep the troops hustling through the upcoming elections for seats on the bar's powerful 15-member Board of Governors.

A sign of the times is the list of candidates for the six available seats on the board. Unlike previous years, when the emphasis was on recruiting blacks and women for those slots, the committee this time made sure that a few conservatives were among the board candidates.

The committee has included John Jude O'Donnell, the incumbent president of the D.C. Bar Association (no relation to the D.C. Bar) and two former presidents of the association, Joseph Barse and Lawrence Carr. The bar association, a voluntary organization considered conservative by some, was the only game in town until 1972, when the "unified" D.C. Bar was established with mandatory membership for every lawyer who wants to practice in the District.

Jim Bierbower, the current president-elect of the bar and a former president of the bar association, says the nominating committee is still "dominated by the historic rulers of the mandatory bar," namely the liberals. Bierbower, who is considered a conservative but says he thinks he's liberal, says the nominating committee's slate is "balanced." He won't go any farther.

"If I said they did a great job, somebody would say there's something fishy there," said Bierbower in a joking reference to popular belief that Bierbower is the arch-foe of the incumbent leadership.

Understanding the background of the labels is important to understanding what is going on. The liberal label means uptown and public interest lawyers. They are activists who believe lawyers have an obligation to share their resources with the community.

The conservatives are those in the smaller firms or with the government. They don't like mandatory bar membership, and they complain that the liberals are spendthrifts. They say community service is okay as long as it pays for itself.

In addition to electing new members for the board of governors, a secretary and treasurer, the membership must also pick Bierbower's successor. The nominating committee has named two candidates: Vincent Cohen, a partner at Hogan & Hartson, and Jacob A. Stein of Stein, Mitchell & Mezines.

Cohen, who ran for president-elect a couple of years ago and came in second to now federal judge Louis P. Oberdorfer, says he wants to bring together whatever factions may have developed as a result of the membership's vote on two referenda.

The members voted to keep a $75-a-year ceiling on dues and to prohibit use of dues money for anything other than lawyer discipline and registration. Cohen won't say how he voted on either question.

"I am not on one side of any issue. I don't believe in single issues," Cohen said. Cohen also added that he thinks the referenda issue should be "put to rest."

Stein, meanwhile, took a strong stand in favor of both spending limitations.Not only does Stein think the bar leadership was too free with its money, he also thinks that the bar's disciplinary proceedings have taken on an "inquisitorial" tone that is supported by a $700,000-a-year budget.

"Any prosecutorial arm that has too much money can do an awful lot of damage," Stein said.

Presumably, the conservative candidates want to see to it that the bar lives up to the mandate of the vote and the liberals want to salvage what's left of the organization they have nurtured for years. What's left ultimately will be up to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has the final word over all D.C. Bar matters.

The outcome of the ideological struggle on the board of governors will probably be felt far outside the confines of the organized bar. For example, the bar has a seat on the two city panels that nominate and monitor the actions of judges on the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals.

In addition to the candidates from the bar association, the nominees for the board of governors are Frank Carter (currently bar secretary), Collot Guerard (current treasurer) and board incumbents David Isbell and James Schaller.

Late from the Carter administration are Joan Bernstein, James Dyke and Joe Onek. Judy Lichtman, director of the women's legal defense fund, and Judy McCaffrey, president of the Women's Bar have also been nominated. a

The government contingent includes former Federal Trade Commissioner Robert Pitofsky and Jerome Nelson, general counsel at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Also among the nominees are Christopher Hart and Iverson Mitchell, both of whom are black; Philip Lacovara, former assistant Watergate special prosecutor and past chairman of the board of trustees of the Public Defender Service; and John Salyer, who honchoed Ref. No. 1 (a $75 dues limit) on its way to membership approval.

Of course, all of this still leaves room for people to get enough signatures from fellow bar members so that they can run for office on petition without the formal endorsement of the nominating commission.

That, after all, is how Jim Bierbower got elected.