During most court sessions, six to nine attorneys sit at the defense counsel tables of the three tobacco companies defending themselves in the biggest cigarette product-liability case ever. One lawyer says their fees run at an hourly rate of about $275. Some, he says, may be paid more.

Behind them is a phalanx of additional defense attorneys; sometimes about two dozen show up. Combined, this staff outnumbers the three plaintiff's lawyers about 8 to 1. Working with the attorneys is a large contingent of public relations officials who serve Philip Morris Inc. and Lorillard Inc., and a smaller group for codefendant, Liggett Group Inc.

The companies' attorneys are on hand to listen, confer and prepare for each day's session. Many spent 4 1/2 years in intense pretrial proceedings, which were triggered by the lawsuit filed by Rose D. Cipollone and her since-widowed husband, Antonio.

From beginning to end, the cost to the three tobacco companies will be in the millions of dollars, making it the most costly case of its kind ever.

But this could be seen as a necessary and modest expense for an industry that spent an estimated $2.5 billion on cigarette advertising and promotion last year. More important, a defeat in Newark could lead to a flood of smoker lawsuits against a $22 billion-a-year industry that has never paid a penny to a litigant.

The regulars at the counsel table for Arnold & Porter, the huge Washington law firm representing Philip Morris, are partners Peter K. Bleakley, 51, formerly of the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, and Thomas E. Silfen, 45, formerly of the National Labor Relations Board.

Bleakley's legal skills apparently impress the U.S. district judge in the case, H. Lee Sarokin, who in a recent slip of the tongue addressed the attorney as "your honor." The jury didn't hear Sarokin say that; it does hear Bleakley utter sentences that are almost invariably free of grammatical error, even when formed in seconds.

Backing up Bleakley and Silfen are five more full-time Arnold & Porter lawyers, including David R. Kentoff, 50, the firm's managing partner, and at least one legal assistant.

Also constantly on hand is former Arnold & Porter partner Murray H. Bring, once a clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren.

In an unusual division of legal labors, Philip Morris and Lorillard, a division of Loews Corp., are represented together by six full-time attorneys and seven full-time legal assistants from Shook, Hardy & Bacon of Kansas City, Mo. Two lawyers from a New Jersey law firm also work full-time on the case.

The front-line Shook, Hardy attorneys are Robert E. Northrip, 49, Steven C. Parrish, 38, and Patrick W. Sirridge, 49. Also at hand is Lorillard's vice president and deputy general counsel.

Northrip and Parrish, in particular, are consistently low-key and soft-spoken. By contrast, Bleakley and Silfen are frequently passionate in arguing and objecting, with or without the jury present.

At the counsel table for Liggett, a unit of Grand Metropolitan PLC, a British conglomerate, are two Webster & Sheffield attorneys: Donald J. Cohn, 59, and James V. Kearney, 40. Working with them is another member of the same New York firm, Liggett's vice president and general counsel, a local attorney, and Alan Hilburg & Associates, a Dallas-based PR firm.

Leading the Philip Morris/Lorillard public relations operation in the courtroom is Shook, Hardy partner Charles R. Wall, 43. He and his four associates display true-believer enthusiasm for their cause. On occasion, when speaking with the media, they mock plaintiffs' witnesses and attempt to downplay the significance of internal company documents to be presented by the plaintiffs.

The always accessible PR team provides reporters with comments, no-comments, complaints about their reporting, and, sometimes morning transcripts by the afternoon.

The plaintiff's lawyer, Marc Z. Edell, and his associates operate in an economical, more traditional mode: If a reporter asks a question, they answer.