National Law Journal and Legal Times of Washington have come forth with their annual surveys of the nation's largest law firms.

For the hometown crowd, No. 1 in Washington (but in the vicinity of 30th nationwide) is Covington & Burling with 76 partners and about 120 associates. The award for the largest Washington branch office goes to Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld of Dallas with about 90 lawyers. Close behind was Kirkland & Ellis of Chicago with 88 lawyers.

Trailing Covington in Washington were Arnold & Porter (157 lawyers and 49th in the top 100); Hogan & Hartson (153 lawyers and 52nd); Steptoe & Johnson (143 lawyers and 62nd); and Wilmer Cutler & Pickering (135 lawyers and 75th) and Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn (114 lawyers and 95th). Howrey & Simon just made it at 97th out of the top 100 with 113 lawyers, according to the National Law Journal figures.

Starting salary -- fresh out of law school -- at Covington, Steptoe and Hogan this October is $34,000 (to be adjusted in October) compared to $37,000 at Wilmer Cutler and $33,000 at Arent Fox, the journal says. The other two Washington firms listed among the top 100 declined to answer when asked about money, according to the journal survey.

Least lucrative of the lawyer markets is Minneapolis, at Faegre & Benson (117 lawyers and ranked 91st in size in the nation's top 100) where new associates start at $24,000.

Such sums are outdone, of course, in New York, where young lawyers are lured to the Big Apple with starting salaries of $43,000, according to both surveys.

New York is still the law's Holy City -- at least in terms of cash and size -- with Shearman & Sterling leading the pack as the nation's 2nd largest law firm with 330 lawyers and branch offices from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi.

There were six more New York firms in the top 20 of the journal's survey; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Davis, Polk & Wardwell; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett; Weil Gotshal & Manges; and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton.

Legal Times, in an analysis of their survey results, says the number of New York firms in the top 25 (11 by their count) is a drop of 25 percent from last year. Legal Times blames the loss on what one lawyer called New York's "disdain for branch offices," and branches mean growth.

Mergers are one way to the top of the big 100, Legal Times noted. For example, when the Washington firm of Danzansky, Dickey, Tydings, Quint & Gordon merged with New York's Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg & Casey, the firm's ranking (according to one of the surveys) jumped from 103rd to 37th, with 182 lawyers (more than twice as many as were reported last year).

Untouchably out front as the biggest law firm in the country is Chicago's Baker & McKenzie with 583 lawyers and 26 branch offices around the world.

The big news in the money market, according to Legal Times, is that the heftiest salary hikes were in Houston -- up $7,000 over 1980 to $35,000 for beginners at that city's "Big Three" -- Baker & Botts, Vinson & Elkins and Fulbright & Jaworski. Some firms are so confident that they will defy their competitors and pay less than the going rate in their cities, Legal Times says. As an example of this kind of nerve, Legal Times cites Winston & Strawn in Chicago, which pays $1,000 less than the standard $31,000.

The most telling word comes at last from an unnamed partner at Cleveland's Squire, Sanders & Dempsey who told Legal Times that his firm was going to hold to last year's starting salary of $31,000 for new associates in Cleveland and $33,000 in Washington. It's not that they don't have the money, this partner says, it's just that somebody has to put the lid on sometime.

On the law school front, Harvey L. Zuckman has been appointed director of the new Institute for Communications Law Study at the Catholic University Columbus School of Law. The program will admit its first students in 1982.

Meanwhile, Washington and Lee University Law School in Lexington, Va., is looking for a new dean. Incumbent Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. says he plans to retire at the end of the 1982-83 school year after 15 years as dean. Steinheimer, a specialist in commercial law, had practiced with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York and taught at the University of Michigan before he came to Washington and Lee.