Back in 1969, the partners of the uppercrust Wall Street law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore made an uncharacteristic move. They opened a suburban outpost in White Plains, N.Y.

This would be no ordinary branch operation, though. It would have just one client, International Business Machines Corp., with headquarters in nearby Armonk, and one charge: To get IBM out from underneath the antitrust suit brought by Uncle Sam.

Working with a spare-no-expense mandate, Cravath proceeded to mount the most lavish legal defense in the annals of law. A typical complex lawsuit might involve the taking of 10 or 20 depositions; Cravath took 2,500. Most litigators go whole careers without ever having occasion to file a single mandamus action (a request for a court order); the Cravath team filed five in one case.

Critics say the firm was pursuing the time-honored defense technique of piling one delay upon another--but on an unprecedented, unconscionably expensive scale.

The Cravath lawyers say the government should have admitted long ago it never had a case. As for their courtroom tactics, they say they were merely paying attention to detail, a kind of secular religion at Cravath.

"The one thing that has been inculcated in all of us at Cravath is the belief that no sacrifice is too great for the client's interests," says Ron Rolfe, 36, a 9 1/2-year veteran of U.S. v. IBM. "There are no magic tools in a case like this," says Paul Saunders, 40, who has been on the defense team since 1973, "just a lot of hard work and preparation."

In the end, their doggedness paid off. Thirteen years, four administrations, 66 million pages of documents, 724 trial days, 974 witnesses, 16,734 exhibits and tens of millions of dollars (no one is saying for sure) in legal fees later, Cravath finished the job.

Whether it had proved its point or merely hung on long enough for the political winds to shift, no matter. The fact remains that just months before the case was finally ready to go to judgment, the government called it quits. The whole thing, they said, had been a bad mistake.

On the same day, Jan. 8, the government settled the only other antitrust suit to approach the IBM case in duration and magnitude, its seven-and-a-half year battle with American Telephone and Telegraph Co.

Given the massive cost of the two suits (estimated at more than $50 million to the Justice Department alone) and in view of the warmer relations that now exist between the government and big business, many antitrust lawyers view those two cases as relics of a bygone era. "I doubt we'll ever see their like again," says Saunders, with a touch of melancholy.

For the Cravath lawyers who devoted so much of their lives to fighting the government, the dropping of the IBM suit was a moment of "total vindication," in the words of Thomas Barr, the controversial, hard-charging senior partner on the case, who presided at a victory party at Regines.

At one time or another, Barr saw to it that almost everyone in the prestigious 200-member firm was pressed into action on the IBM case. But the guts of his team were a handful of lawyers who grew from lean young associates to full-fledged, ample-bellied, handsomely recompensed partners while working almost exclusively on IBM. They all use the same metaphor to describe the past decade of their lives.

"It was a war experience," says Rolfe, "You read about old platoons that get together years later and relive the old battles. I'm sure it will be that way with us. Hell, we've already begun."

"It was like being in combat all the time," says Max Shulman, 36. "Things were never quiet."

"It's one fight I'm glad I didn't miss," says Joseph Sahid, 37.

The combativeness of the Cravath lawyers did little to endear them to the other players in the case. The judge who presided throughout, U.S. District Court Judge David N. Edelstein of the Southern District of New York, often crossed swords with the defense team, and at one point called Barr a "spoiled brat."

Barr, for his part, took the extraordinary step of filing a mandamus action with a U.S. Court of Appeals demanding that Edelstein be removed from the case because he had shown bias. The motion was accompanied by 12 volumes of supporting documents. It was denied.

Even at the end, on the final day in court, when lawyers in a lengthy lawsuit customarily shower their adversaries with praise--much in the way boxers embrace at the end of 15 withering rounds--the kindest thing the government prosecutors and judge could find to say about their relationship with the defense team was to call it "rocky."

But the Cravath team's obsession was with winning, not making friends. The government went through several generations of prosecutors over the years, while the core of Cravath's White Plains operation stuck with it, working 60- to 100-hour weeks, week after week, year after year. Vacations were uncommon; five-day weeks unheard of.

The intense commitment took its toll on family life. Some did not marry or married only recently; many are childless. But few seemed to mind. "If you like what you are doing, you want to do more of it," says Sahid.

And they all say now they loved what they were doing--although, as partner David Boies points out drily, "It helps that we won."

There is a mixture of bravado and pride when they talk of their conquests during the case. "We did things other lawyers just read about," says Saunders, decribing the five mandamus actions and the the rounding up of 1,000 depositions in a four-month blitz.

"I think I've gotten more experience than anybody my age who has been involved in litigation," says Rolfe. "I kept asking myself if there was any other case I'd rather be working on," adds Sahid, who points out there were ample opportunities to rotate off the case, "and the answer was always 'No.' "

Part of the fascination for the lawyers was that there wasn't just one case, but two dozens of them, counting all the separate antitrust actions filed by IBM's competitors. That kept the defense team in courtrooms all over the country. (Of the 24, IBM settled some out of court and won all that went to trial.)

Beyond that, there was the challenge of keeping up with an industry that was in a constant state of explosive growth. "You had to run just to stay in place," says Sahid. "We all read the trade magazines religiously."

Their client tried to help out as best it could. At the start of the case, IBM gave the lawyers a six-week course in the basics of the computer and the computer industry. By the time the trial began six years later, "we needed a whole new course," says Boies, "but we didn't have time then to take one." Indeed, when the trial began, more than half of the practices the government raised as antitrust violations were related to products that did not exist in 1969, when former Attorney General Ramsey Clark filed charges on the last working day of the Johnson administration.

IBM helped in other ways, too--setting up a computerized information retrieval system to organize the millions of pages of documents. "A lot of the things we set up have become standard operating procedure in terms of managing big lawsuits," says Saunders. "But we didn't have any guideposts. We wrote the book."

For all of their war tales, all was not glitter and glamor. Any lawsuit--and especially a long, complicated one--involves a tremendous amount of drudgery, and not every lawyer is willing to endure it. The IBM case is said for a time to have affected Cravath's ability to recruit top law school graduates.

"They tried to entice recruits by telling them they could work on the case of the century, but the fact of the matter was there was a lot of humdrum to it," said one former Cravath lawyer.

The firm, in fact, was forced to offer special compensations for the long hours and the endless detail work. Perks--in the form of free cars, free housing, free meals, substantial annual bonuses--became commonplace at White Plains, causing some friction with lawyers in the rest of the firm.

But the lawyers who worked the case say the perks were only part of the reason they stayed with it. Another part was Barr himself, a man whose leadership qualities they all swear by.

"The thing about Barr was that he led by example," says Boies. "He was always willing to take his share not only of the exciting stuff, but the tedious stuff as well. And nobody put in longer hours."

It is a tradition at Cravath to assign a young associate to work with a senior partner for his first few years at the firm so that the Cravath "system"--in everything from filing memoranda to cross-examining witnesses--can be perpetuated. Barr, 50, the mentor for a whole flock of lawyers who cut their teeth on the IBM case, has turned out a breed of fierce competitors.

The story is still told around the firm's main office on Wall Street about an incident involving Barr at the Cravath annual summer outing a few years back. According to rules drawn up in lawyerly detail long in advance, the day's round robin of softball games would end precisely at 4:30 p.m., no matter what the inning--lest the cocktail hour be unhappily foreshortened.

At the appointed hour, Barr was on the mound, so the story goes, and his team made up of lawyers assigned to the IBM case was trailing badly. The opposing team tried to end it, citing the memo and the time. Barr protested vigorously, and much argumentation ensued. In the end, the game went on, though with no change in the final outcome.

From that grip of intensity, the IBM attorneys will now move to a more varied life. Some will linger in the White Plains office to mop up details for IBM. Most will return to the main office of Cravath, where a once-fledgling litigation department is now nearly a co-equal with the corporate side.

Even though it will not be entirely novel for the IBM crew to work on other cases, some adjustments will be needed. Several times during the past decade, the team was called off its IBM work for special projects, as, for example, when the State Department asked Barr in late 1979 to explore possible legal defenses for the American hostages in Iran in the event of an international spy trial. And there was other pro bono work, as when Saunders took two months off last summer to try a civil rights case in Alabama.

"Basically, litigation is litigation, and it wasn't much of a change," he mused, then added, "though I must admit it was kind of a shock to the system to have a trial begin and end in a discreet period of time."