NEW YORK -- For more than a decade Citicorp has been viewed by rivals and regulators as a company that has used shrewd lawyers and cold cash to woo state legislatures, find loopholes in federal law and otherwise claw past competitors to become the nation's biggest bank.

Now the New York giant has decided a more cooperative approach might work better with federal regulators and lawmakers.

"There's a feeling that maybe we were perceived as a little too arrogant or sharp elbowed," Citicorp Vice Chairman Hans H. Angermueller said in a recent interview.

Angermueller, who describes himself as "the gunslinger lobbyist," has been the chief crafter of Citicorp's 18-year battle to deregulate banking by undoing Depression-era laws that bar banks from the relatively risky areas of securities, real estate and insurance. The goal has been to allow Citicorp to sell more financial products to more people in more states.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Citicorp preferred to wage its crusade as a loner, shunning most other members of the historically stodgy banking industry and telling federal regulators of its plans only when necessary.

Even so, Citicorp's campaign was widely watched. As the nation's biggest bank, its push extended further and generated more fanfare than anyone else's.

By the time many competitors and regulators concluded that deregulation might be necessary for banks' long-term health, Citicorp had become to banking what IBM is to computers, an industry standard. It also had become known as a company that felt beholden to no one.

"In the 1970s Citicorp started to move very bombastically ... saying, by God, this is reality as we see it and Congress should do as we want," said Paul Nelson, staff director of the House Banking Committee until taking a job at Tulane University last fall.

In the late 1980s Citicorp's goals are the same, but it's softening its methods to achieve its objectives. Some of Citicorp's critics say, however, that its effort to change its image may be too little and too late, especially in the wake of the Oct. 19 stock market collapse and the losses that Citicorp and several other major banks suffered as a result.

"We're working more closely with colleagues and competitors," Angermueller said. "I think it's beginning to pay off." In recent months even long-time foe of deregulation Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) has come around to the conclusion that the 55-year-old Glass-Steagall law barring commercial banks from most securities activities in the United States (but not overseas) is outdated.

But foes of deregulation, including Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), are likely to point to losses that Citicorp and others suffered in overseas securities transactions during the market debacle to try to block efforts to give banks freer rein at home. Citicorp is terrified of Dingell, company sources say, and its lobbyists appear at the congressman's office only when summoned to explain an alleged misdeed.

In the meantime, lobbyists for the securities industry, who have spent years pleading their case against deregulation, have made Dingell's office a routine stop.

The difference in lobbying tactics may dearly cost Citicorp -- and the industry -- in the upcoming battle over whether to repeal Glass-Steagall. Repeal is considered a first step to deregulation.

Some aides on the House Banking Committee sigh that Citicorp's failure to try to court Dingell will be the single biggest factor that could prevent any substantive bank deregulation bill from passing this year.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Citicorp's aggressiveness -- coupled with its promises of jobs and community investment -- convinced state after state to allow it within their borders. To get into the District, a Citicorp vice president even promised a $160,000 consulting contract to the social companion of a D.C. Council member who leads the committee that approves bank applications.

"They think they can buy anything," an aide to Dingell said at the time.

Now that the industry has won its fight to cross state lines, it has turned its attention to its goal of selling more products, especially in the securities arena. That has shifted the focus of the debate from state legislatures to Congress and federal regulatory agencies, where pushiness and promises to create new jobs don't play well. So Citicorp is working hard to dispel its hard-sell reputation.

But the recent stock market collapse threatens to undermine the company's campaign. Citicorp, Continental Illinois Corp. and other banking companies lost millions of dollars -- and in some cases have been accused of breaking laws -- during the collapse, prompting several congressional investigations.

"The subcommittee will be looking into Continental and Citicorp and other situations where securities laws may have been violated in connection with Black Monday," said Michael Barrett, chief counsel of the Dingell subcommittee that oversees securities. "They have an importance for issues that the subcommittee and the full committee will be considering, namely repeal of Glass-Steagall."

He said, "Dingell is very committed to preserving as much of Glass-Steagall as possible. Citicorp and Continental show why we have a Glass-Steagall to begin with."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also is investigating the losses and in recent weeks asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to determine if Citicorp or any other major bank failed to maintain the so-called Chinese Wall between its securities operations and the federally insured deposits of its commercial banking unit.

In the meantime, bankers will continue to press Congress to grant them greater freedom this year. As Citicorp works to soften its image, some industry observers wonder if it really has changed its ways or if everyone else has been won over to its point of view.

"Are they less aggressive or has the world caught up with them?" asked Philip S. Corwin, a lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.

Others say Citicorp had no choice but to be cooperative with the industry in working to change federal law.

In addition to softening its tone to outsiders, the company is also trying to decentralize its internal operations to give departments more autonomy and greater flexibility in how each decides to handle relations with the public and the press.

That may explain why, despite Angermueller's claim that the company is revamping its image, his colleague who runs Citicorp's consumer services, Richard S. Braddock, took a slap at Congress recently during a speech to the American Bankers Association, the industry's largest lobby group.

"The world economy is being restructured, and this is causing some severe dislocations in banking, the same as in every other business," Braddock said. "Since those who are debating the various crises don't fully comprehend the changes being wrought, any proposed remedies will have only the most fleeting benefits, or none at all."

He said, "Lots of people are struggling to come to grips with all these issues, mostly with the best of intentions, and some of them even rationally. One or two of them are even in Washington. But many of them, and particularly those in Washington, are approaching these problems with the wrong perspective."

That's not quite the tone Congress appreciates.

If Citicorp has failed to win over some key lawmakers, it also has failed to convey the impression it wants to consumers. To remedy that it launched a multimillion-dollar television and print advertising campaign last fall.

"Research clearly showed we hadn't communicated the fact that consumers nationwide can turn to us, rather than to a local provider, for financial services," Braddock wrote in a magazine that Citicorp puts out for its employees. "Companies such as the Sears Financial Network, Merrill Lynch and American Express have far better name recognition. They are also perceived to be larger than Citicorp."

"Most important," Braddock wrote, "this campaign positions Citicorp ... as far more than a bank. We want to be known as the company that can take care of any financial need, anytime, in any part of the United States and, over time, throughout the world."

That's a claim that Citicorp will need Congress' help in fulfilling.

Not everyone in Congress would agree Citicorp needs to tone down its approach.

"I never felt they were arrogant," said Ken McLean, staff director of the Senate Banking Committee. "They were always the biggest bank and they have a definite point of view, but not necessarily arrogant.

"If they have a reputation for being so aggressive it might stem from their state-level activities" where they have been most successful, and in their sometimes stormy relationship with federal regulators, he said.

Other congressional aides agree. One recalls when he was a lawyer at the Federal Reserve Board at a time when "Bank of America was the biggest bank and Citicorp was the distant second."

Bank of America lawyers would "put their heads together" and think up loopholes around the federal laws that limit banks' activities, the aide said. "Then they would take their plans to the Fed and ask, 'Well, what do you think?' Of course the Fed would have to say no," he said.

Citicorp, by contrast, would "think up strategies that were just as novel, but we {at the Fed} wouldn't know about it until we read the papers the next day" and saw how the bank had acted on its plan, the aide said.

"Now look at the two {companies} today," said the aide, referring to Bank of America's position as the distant second and its continuing problems from bad loans.

Now that most federal banking regulators are pushing for bank deregulation -- another reason Citicorp has for being less abrasive, critics say -- the final hurdle is Congress.

Angermueller said Citicorp has not succeeded in every area it has tried to enter, but says that the important point is that it is always trying something new.

Citicorp will continue to be at the forefront of changing law and regulations, Angermueller said, but said, "It's also going to digest what it's won."

He said that in some cases, like Citicorp's investment banking division, which has lost money and had high turnover since its creation five years ago, "Ambitions may have outreached realities." Last week the company laid off 400 people from the unit and said more cuts are likely.

Getting U.S. laws changed would go a long way to making the unit's operations profitable, bank analysts say, underscoring the importance of Citicorp's efforts in Congress.