Recruiters at several of Washington's most powerful law firms were shaken up this job hunting season when an ugly problem--a challenged resume--came up in the case of an engaging candidate from a major West Coast law school who wanted to work as a summer associate.

The problem with the West Coast student was that he had "puffed on his resume," one lawyer said. While no questions were raised about the student's academic credentials, there were "little discrepancies" involving some of his extracurricular activities, the lawyer said. The student said he was the winner of a prestigious public speaking prize when he only got honorable mention; he said he was the president of his student union when he was vice president and, to make matters worse, he ran up a huge bill at an elegant Washington hotel while he was in town interviewing.

The case began to unravel by chance when the student's resume was seen by the real winner of the public speaking prize, an associate at the firm of Arnold & Porter. The West Coast student offered his excuses to the firms involved and the matters were quietly set aside, but the lawyers remained disturbed. The incident had been an unpleasant reminder of a gnawing problem in Washington in which the law firms are flooded with applicants but in which they are at the mercy of the presumed integrity of their resumes. How can the firms weed out the hype--and at times the outright fraud--in the way that hungry job seekers represent themselves?

Lawyers in Washington recalled that the West Coast student flashed around a five-page-long resume from the best of the Ivy League schools, complete with a string of accomplishments from divinity studies to field work with Mother Teresa, Calcutta's renowned "Saint of the Gutters."

The student, who is in his second year of law school, settled in at the posh Four Seasons Hotel (running up a bill of $2,500 in 11 days) and blitzed the elite of Washington law firms--Arnold & Porter; Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering; Hogan & Hartson; Wald Harkrader & Ross; Rogovin Stern & Huge. "People were giving him offers on the spot," one Washington lawyer familiar with the case said. But at another firm, a partner commented, the student's resume "was a little too much"--particularly one typed line that at first glance made it seem that the student and not Mother Teresa had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

The student, interviewed by telephone, declined to comment and said the incident was a "personal matter between me and certain law firms." He said "the whole thing has caused me considerable distress" and added that "I fully explained my position to the firms involved." The student refused to say whether he had outstanding job offers in Washington, but another source confirmed that at least one firm withdrew its offer after the resume problem arose.

One partner in Washington commented that the student had written a "fairly persuasive" apologia in which he had an explanation for every one of the "errors" on his resume. For example, when the printer forgot to put the "v," for "vice," before "president" of the undergraduate union, the student let it slip through. He contends he thought he had shared the winner's spot for the public speaking prize. And that he had been told by one of the firms that invited him to town that it would be acceptable for him to stay at the Four Seasons.

Lawyers familiar with the case said they found it hard to figure why a clearly talented student would allow such discrepancies to occur. "With his record . . . he would get offers in the normal course from a good number of national law firms," one lawyer said.

One source said the West Coast student's resume was the second "doctored" resume that Arnold & Porter has received during this recruiting season. And there's no blaming Arnold & Porter for being extra careful--in 1978, they hired a summer associate, relying on a strong resume, only to learn a year later that she had never been registered in law school, although she attended classes, and did not have an undergraduate degree.

A faculty member who knows the student from the West Coast was quick to describe him as a "very bright and able person" who "made some bad mistakes." The faculty member was equally quick to attack the law firm recruitment process and "the pressures now being on these kids," which he described as "just insufferable."

"These law firms have been wining and dining people in the most crazy and extravagant way," said another faculty member who has practiced law in Washington and who knows the student.

"Students are lapping this up . . . and losing sight about what it means to be a lawyer . . . " this faculty member said about the intense and often glamorous recruiting process that has become a way of life each fall and winter in Washington.

Spectacular resumes are nothing new to Washington. What the lawyers are learning to fear is the increasing possibility that they can't believe what they see--a situation one lawyer called a "recruitment administrator's nightmare."

"I guess it troubles me if you've got to think every single credential has to be checked," another lawyer said. "If suddenly you've got to get skeptical about these things it's a hell of a situation," this lawyer said.

One of the faculty members had little sympathy for the Washington lawyers, whom he accused of being overly self-righteous.

"In every one of those firms I'll bet there are 10 partners who padded on their resumes," he said.