PARIS -- It is a classic example of what can happen when the go-go Spirit of '92 meets the go-slow caution of French vested interests.

Earlier this year, France's Socialist government proposed a major overhaul of the nation's legal profession, hoping to fuse a dizzying maze of specialties into one lean, mean legal cadre that could compete in the unified European market.

A draft bill went to the National Assembly, where a host of guilds and associations -- some dating back to the Middle Ages -- lobbied ferociously for revisions. The final text, when it emerged, left the old structure largely intact, or almost intact. Added to the measure were amendments that would effectively shut down American law firms operating in France. The assembly narrowly rejected the bill last month for political reasons, but it will consider it again soon and is expected to pass it.

"French lawyers are still living in the 19th century; they feel they have to streamline by 1992 or they won't be able to compete," said an American partner at a Wall Street law firm's Paris office. "But the new proposal is completely confused and would leave us in deep trouble."

The American problem centers on the question of "reciprocity," a new European Community concept requiring that non-European states treat European firms exactly the way the EC treats foreigners. Several business experts said the case may presage future trade brush fires as France and the EC reform professional codes and raise more reciprocity questions as the community approaches the 1992 target for dropping internal barriers.

A recent U.S.-EC dispute over banking reciprocity was resolved when the two sides agreed that European firms in the United States would be accorded equal footing with American banks, although all banks in the United States face more restrictions than do banks in Europe.

The problem may come up again when the EC tries to set guidelines for foreign professors, teachers and other specialists who want to work in Europe. Rules on telecommunications industries, public procurement and small goods manufactured by non-EC firms will also raise the reciprocity problem.

For now, the 17 major American law firms and scores of minor ones operating here are concerned about the changes proposed for France's legal profession, considered the most archaic in Europe. It is one of several islands of tradition long protected by French law from evolution and change.

Lawyers are divided into a host of exclusive and jealously guarded specialties. Avocats handle litigation. Conseils juridiques advise on business and corporate law. Old-fashioned notaires do mostly estate work. And there are other specialists with sole authority to handle appeals and unusual cases.

Each of the categories works alone, each sets its own entry requirements and rules, and the small nation boasts more than 180 separate bar associations, all run like "independent fiefdoms," an American attorney said. Aggressive American firms have long carved out niches for themselves as conseils juridiques, working only on international and U.S. law.

"Professionally, France is probably the least developed legal country in Europe, with the smallest number of lawyers and large firms," said Lindsey Armstrong, a European Commission representative in Paris. "The French don't like to go to court and they don't like lawyers. But with 1992 approaching, a cultural revolution must come about."

Hoping to spur that revolution, the Socialist government proposed fusing the categories into one profession of avocats, similar to American lawyers. When the bill went to the National Assembly for consideration, a recent Le Monde newspaper article described what happened next as "a veritable unleashing of pressure groups the likes of which one has never seen."

Young avocats and new firms anxious to expand their roles lobbied furiously for the measure. Notaires, conseils juridiques and traditional avocats fought to save the old divisions. The groups used everything from old-school ties to offers of lunch in five-star restaurants to sway delegates.

"Structurally, the American profession is 30 years ahead of us -- you have the spirit of enterprise we lack," said Bruno Boccara, a leading Parisian litigator and vocal opponent of any reform. "But this project is futile -- we don't need a legislated solution, only reflection.

"Each legal profession has its identity and traditions, and that is best suited for the French temperament," he said.

The final package would turn the conseils juridiques into avocats but leave notaires and other specialists untouched. Also saved would be the 180 bar associations and the restrictions on partnerships and salaried work that help keep French firms small.

But thrown into the mix were two proposals that would all but shut down the American firms now operating in Paris.

One would force foreign, non-EC lawyers to take a grueling exam similar to the French bar.

"It would be very difficult to pass the exam without going to a French law school," the attorney at the Wall Street firm said. "That means it would be all but impossible for us to bring in new American blood."

As problematic for Americans would be a reciprocity clause inserted into the draft at the behest of large French firms that compete against U.S. multinationals. That clause would set up entry requirements for foreign lawyers that would precisely match their home countries' requirements for French attorneys.

Until now, French lawyers in the United States have worked as "foreign legal consultants" who, like American conseils juridiques in France, cannot litigate but don't have to take the native bar exams. Since the proposed bill would eliminate conseils juridiques, any new American lawyers hoping to work in France would have to become full avocats and meet French standards similar to those set up in the United States for the handful of French who want to be full American attorneys. That means Americans would have to go to a French law school, take the French bar exam and work several years as apprentices before moving to American shops.

Boccara defended the proposed new requirements, saying, "Americans will have the same rights as all French lawyers, but also the same obligations."

"The key word is reciprocity -- and precisely what that means," Armstrong said. Several cases before the European Court of Justice may clarify the question, although U.S.-EC disagreements would have to be resolved through separate negotiations, he said.