It began two years ago this month in the midst of a typically suffocating Washington summer.

And for Leonard Wang and his colleagues on the cluttered fourth floor of the Securities and Exchange Commission at 5th and D streets NW, it has been a long -- and in some ways bittersweet -- journey.

Wang, a 33-year-old lawyer in the SEC's enforcement division, could not have predicted two years ago that the SEC's investigation of supicious stock trading by the Bahamian branch of a Swiss bank eventually would uncover Wall Street's worst scandal since the 1930s.

Wang would have been hard-pressed, too, to imagine that he and his enforcement division colleagues would often feel like reluctant prosecutors.

"There is a degree of empathy that arises from the fact that these people are my peers," Wang said yesterday, reflecting on the two years he has spent pursuing young Wall Street executives, beginning with former investment banker Dennis B. Levine.

"When I was in kindergarten, so were they," Wang said. "When I was learning to play baseball, so were they. You develop this sense of empathy when you meet the individual person."

Lise Lustgarten, a 26-year-old lawyer who joined the SEC after graduating from Columbia Law School in 1985, said she has been especially affected by the charges against former Wall Street lawyer Illan K. Reich. Reich, also a Columbia law graduate, had risen through the ranks to become a partner at the prestigious New York firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz at age 30.

Reich was charged last year with leaking confidential information about upcoming corporate takeovers to Levine, who used the tips to make millions of dollars in illegal stock trading profits.

"I realize how hard he must have worked to go as far as he did," Lustgarten said of Reich. "That was a sad thing for me. I look at {Reich and the others} and say, 'That could have been me or a number of people I know.' We eat at the same restaurants and live in the same part of town.

"I realize it is probably easy to step over the line. You don't have to go out and buy a gun. All you have to do is open your mouth."

The reflections expressed yesterday by SEC lawyers seemed less an indication of soft-heartedness than evidence that the attorneys think constantly about the moral and emotional dimensions of their work.

Therese Pritchard, to whom Lustgarten and Wang report, said she has weighed both sides of her prosecutorial dilemma. "These were people with no social excuse," she said. "They didn't grow up deprived."

Pritchard said she moved to Washington and joined the SEC in 1982 because her husband, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy with emphasis on the study of ethics, got a teaching job in the area. While the series of insider trading cases has provoked a lot of hand-wringing about ethics on Wall Street, Pritchard said her husband has taken a more parochial view.

"He is incredibly supportive and gets more of a charge out of a newspaper article with my name in it than I do," she said.

Pritchard said the biggest sacrifice she has made while working on the insider cases has been time away from her husband and 3-year-old daughter, especially while she was working on the Ivan F. Boesky case last fall. Wang, a branch chief who supervises seven other SEC lawyers, said he routinely works 60 or 70 hours a week, including many weekends.

At the same time, the demanding pace and responsibility of enforcement division work is what attracts many of the lawyers who work there -- lawyers who could be earning six-figure salaries at Washington's blue-chip firms.

"Our philosophy is to push you as fast as possible," said William McLucas, associate director of the enforcement division, who is in charge of recruitment. "People come here because of the experience and because they want to wear a white hat."

McLucas said applications for work at the enforcement division have increased significantly since the excitement of the Levine and Boesky cases hit the newspapers.

"Sometimes I get lost in day-to-day work and forget how exciting this is," Lustgarten said. "Then I'll talk to a friend who is sitting in a {law} library researching water rights."

Many of the attorneys toiling in the SEC's enforcement division seem destined for lucrative careers in the private sector, although none said that a career move was in the works. All said they have no qualms about defending securities law violators and battling the SEC from the other side of the table some day.

John Sturc, an associate director of the division, said that government work has its own special appeal. Sturc joined the SEC in 1982 after working for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington and doing a brief stint at a private law firm.

"I was in private practice very briefly in between for about 10 months," Sturc said. "It didn't suit me. It is just hard to put a finger on it. I just enjoy government practice and the investigative role more."

Whether he eventually lands in private practice or not, it is doubtful that Leonard Wang will ever duplicate his experiences during the past two years. Wang said that one of the most startling things for him about the recent insider trading cases has been listening to the felons' confessions.

"The first time I listened to one of these guys tell his story I almost fell off my chair," he said. "I was stunned by a guy actually admitting it..

In Wang, at least, the confessions sometimes produce a reflective mood. Two sultry summers from now, the investigations may still be in full swing. If they are, Wang will not be gloating. "The SEC is not on a crusade," he said.