It seems D.C. Bar President James J. Bierbower can turn any occasion, even something as dull as the recent dinner of the bar disciplinary system, into a memorable event.

The 75 or so dinner guests--mostly members of the group whose job it is to investigate complaints and sanction errant lawyers--had just finished a bland dinner and equally bland, if earnest, discussion. The talk was part self-congratulatory, part self-critical, concluding that, while there were problems, they were all doing a fine job.

Then Lawrence Latto, chairperson of the Board of Professional Responsiblity, asked Bierbower, not a member of the board but invited as president of the bar, to say a few words:

"I'm tempted by the invitation, and perhaps I should resist," Bierbower began, surveying the crowd. "But I won't."

Bierbower didn't continue the earlier discussion on procedures and mechanics. He questioned the fairness of the whole system, a system run by members from lucrative uptown practices who often sit in judgment of lawyers who are not as financially successful. Those less-well-off lawyers lack the back-up services the wealthier lawyers in the audience were so accustomed to and take for granted. Services such as receptionists, secretaries, paralegals, messengers and computers.

Many of those marginal lawyers, hustling to make ends meet, have little more than an answering service for an office. It's little wonder that they are sometimes late in filing petitions for their clients or providing the best and most prompt possible legal advice.

They don't charge the fees the uptown crowd charges, which might enable them to have elaborate support services, Bierbower said. But they serve a poor, equally marginal clientele who can't afford the dinner audience's fancy fees. As such, those lawyers are performing a vital community service, he said.

The reaction to those calmly delivered blasts ranged from hostile, to indifferent, to mildly amused at Bierbower's saying such things at such a gathering. Then D.C. Bar president-elect Jacob Stein, also not known for mincing words, said he agreed with everything Bierbower had said, adding a few points of his own.

Latto asked D.C. Court of Appeals Judge John M. Ferren if he would like to say something. "I'm tempted by the invitation, and perhaps I should resist," Ferren began, "and I will."

In an interview last week, Latto said Bierbower's remarks were "legitimately said aloud." Latto said the board was "very much aware of this problem, and we discussed it all the time."

"On the other hand, those lawyers had clients too, and we regard it as part of our job that those clients are not badly treated." Latto agreed that all lawyers put things off or may occasionally forget things. But "we're talking about letting things go when action is necessary, when a client is in jail" or in divorce court, "where people are at each other's throats. You can't sit around for a month in those situations," he said.

"If we make a mistake, we want to err on the side of protecting the public, rather than protecting the bar."