The next time you complain about living in the region with the highest number of lawyers per capita in the country, consider the increasing importance of attorneys to the welfare of the Washington-area economy.

"It used to be that the three A's that drove the Washington economy were associations, accountants and attorneys; now it's attorneys, attorneys, attorneys," said Tony Gould, a partner in the commercial real estate firm of Larson, Ball & Gould, Inc.

The number of lawyers in private practice in the metropolitan area has nearly doubled in the last 10 years -- from about 11,000 in 1981 to more than 19,000 this year -- and the D.C. Bar Association reports that it admits about 200 new members each month.

Those attorneys generate big money. The 20 top grossing firms in Washington had revenue of $1.23 billion in 1989, compared with $1.05 billion in 1988, according to a survey by the weekly newspaper Legal Times. The 3,535 lawyers working for those firms grossed, on average, fees of $350,000 each compared with 3,313 lawyers with $317,000 the previous year, according to the survey.

While the revenue figure is about 17 percent higher than in the previous year, the survey points out that because of the lag in payments, even the most recent law firm billings represent work done in earlier more prosperous times. And the growth is down significantly from the 25 percent increase between 1987 and 1988.

Such reports and the increasing slowdown in the area economy have caused many lawyers and non-lawyers alike to express skepticism about whether law firms here -- both in terms of numbers of attorneys and the money they bring in -- can match the robust growth of the last decade in the years ahead.

"Clearly, the answer is no," said Howard Mudrick, vice president of Hildebrandt Inc., a Sommerville, N.J., management consulting business for law firms, who said the next several years could be tough ones for Washington lawyers.

Historically, economic slowdowns have not hit Washington firms as hard as those in the rest of the country, Mudrick said, because of the large number of lawyers whose work is connected to the federal government.

Many Washington lawyers long have believed that the government has sprinkled them with a coating of recession-proof fairy dust, but experts now say that even the federal practice area is less certain to grow than in the past. Firms whose business is tied to big, national companies are facing corporations that are tightening their belts in virtually every area -- and many of those firms are bringing ordinary legal matters in-house to cut down on legal bills.

Firms whose business is mostly tied to local business, rather than the federal government, are being hit hard by the recent slowdown in the region's economy.

That is not to say that business is sluggish at all firms. Many say they are hiring as many new associates or partners as ever.

At Crowell & Moring, "We're having our best year ever," said managing partner Tom Watson, who notes that the litigation and regulatory work is particularly busy.

"Happily, our areas are not only stable, but are in a growth mode," said Terrence Sheehy of Howrey & Simon, where he said corporate, litigation and government contracts work is up.

"Unless the economy really comes to a screeching halt, some people will go on without any effect at all," said Rodney F. Page, managing partner at Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn.

But Sheehy admits that "everyone is worrying about the economy."

"The more I talk to people around town ... there's such a doom and gloom, woe-is-us attitude," said one source in the legal community who asked not to be identified. "It's getting to be so pervasive, it's going to have to affect the law firms ... . They are simply going to reflect what's happening to their clients."

"I think we're all a little uneasy because we've never had to live through this kind of thing before," said Daniel W. Toohey, managing partner at Washington's Dow, Lohnes & Albertson.

Bettina M. Lawton, of the Washington office of Dechert Price & Rhoads, added, "Firms in this area are very skittish and are being very careful. They've seen what happened in New York with massive layoffs."

The result is that a number of firms are beginning austerity programs that include cutting expenses, not giving raises or giving smaller-than-usual raises to associates and switching from areas of practice where business is slow, such as real estate transactions and corporate law, to those that are hot, such as bankruptcy and the environment.

At Arent, Fox, a communications lawyer, David Tillotson, and a corporate lawyer, Scoop Stewart, are developing sub-specialties in the firm's busy bankruptcy practice. And real estate attorneys for whom work is slow are shifting their emphasis to helping real estate firms work out financial problems.

At Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, they've beefed up the white-collar crime practice and added four attorneys in the energy field because those areas are busy. Even so, said managing partner Richard Noland, "to be cautious, we are not hiring as many new lawyers as we usually would."

At David & Hagner, a small, "boutique" firm that specializes in real estate law, some attorneys have switched to commercial litigation and workouts -- financial turnaround plans developed outside of the bankruptcy process.

At Dow, Lohnes, they're asking some lawyers to double up on secretarial service, slowing some training services and asking people to cut back on the use of temporary help.

The cocktail-party chatter among lawyers is all about the general economic slowdown and which law firms and areas of practice are being hit hardest. Fewer lawyers are going to lunch, one said recently, because they don't want to miss clients calls.

In addition to cellular phones, some area members of the bar also took their facsimile machines on vacation this year, wary of leaving a client unsatisfied and thus easy prey for a competitor.

Lawyers say the pressures are changing their lifestyles. There's more competition within firms as well as between firms. The tension to increase billable hours -- the time devoted to working on client matters -- has been climbing to a point where lawyers say there aren't enough hours in the day to bill all they need to, even for associates working more than 70 hours a week. That makes many lawyers less satisfied with their jobs than ever before, said a recent survey by the American Bar Association.

That does not mean, however, that lawyers are being shut away in dark offices to toil unrewarded through the night. A recent survey by Legal Times showed that the lowliest new associates at the 25 major Washington firms earned between $65,000 and $85,000 last year. And firms have not yet rolled up the oriental rugs or cut back on the near museum-quality displays of art on their office walls.

And when lawyers really get worried, they console themselves with the fact that while business may be slower than usual in Washington, at least it's not New York.

"Firms in Washington are so much more diverse than in New York," said James Jones, managing partner at Washington's Arnold & Porter. "The bad news is that mergers and acquisitions business has fallen through the floor. The good news is we didn't have that much of it."

Some major New York firms with a heavy emphasis on Wall Street deals and corporate work have dismissed substantial numbers of attorneys -- a shock to a profession that views stability as their due.

That tremor has not yet moved through the Washington legal community, and most attorneys here said they don't expect it to, even though there have been a few scattered layoffs at local firms.

In fact, R. Robert Linowes of Linowes and Blocher, can still laugh when he is asked how much of his firm's work is related to the hardest hit area of legal practice: the local real estate business. "It's very small -- only about 80 or 90 percent of our business," he said. "That's where our expertise and capabilities are."

Linowes said the only change the firm has made is to put more emphasis on the bankruptcy area. "We're carrying on our business as best we can with no major changes in the firm ... That's not to say that we know what the future's going to hold. The management committee is making contingency plans. It would be silly if we weren't."

In banking law, attorneys have been somewhat surprised by what has happened in their field.

"Banking lawyers thought that they would have spent the last two years doing merger and acquisition work," said one banking lawyer who asked not to be identified. "Instead, thrifts and commercial banks were much sicker than anyone thought." And when institutions fail and assets are sold, "it doesn't create a lot of big-money work."

One government agency dealing with the fall-out from the S&L debacle has not provided as much work for local attorneys as had been expected. "The RTC {Resolution Trust Corp.} didn't get up and going as fast as everyone thought," the attorney added. "The work is there, but the question is when it will come through the pipeline. Lawyers are disappointed in that."

At Elias, Matz, Tiernan & Herrick, a banking boutique of about 22 lawyers who do mostly banking and corporate securities work, partner Timothy B. Matz said they've had a record year thus far working with banking and thrift regulators on supervisory agreements.

"I'd prefer to be doing public offerings," Matz said, "but it's good times for revenues."

Like other service businesses, law firms are affected when the economy slows because clients are simply slower in paying their bills.

"Even with good clients, it's taking them an extra month or six weeks to pay," said Arnold & Porter's Jones. "It hurts cash flow."

Many Washington attorneys predict that the next 10 years will be years of consolidation. As in the accounting profession, more small and mid-size firms are expected to disappear as they merge with other firms for more diversity and security.

John B. Rehm, whose 15-lawyer Washington firm of Busby, Rehm and Leonard merged with the 300-lawyer Dorsey & Whitney in January of 1988, understands the concept. His small firm, which specialized in international trade and commerce, "saw larger firms moving in and we couldn't offer the same services ... . We began to feel that the day of the boutique was ending.

"I hate to say it ... but I'm afraid economic pressures are driving us to bigger and bigger firms."

For attorneys in firms of all sizes, the years ahead are expected to be more challenging than the ones just completed. "I think 1991 will be a tough year for Washington firms," said Mudrick. "There will be greater selectivity in hiring and greater selectivity in who makes partner."

This talk of languor in the business causes economy watchers to consider the significance of Washington lawyers. It is, they said, far greater than just the fees attorneys bill.

"They are like fly paper," said Stephen Fuller, chairman of the urban planning department at George Washington University. "A great deal of activity in other sectors takes place because the law firms are here," he said, pointing to their importance in such areas as international business transactions and federal contracts. "It wouldn't happen without them."

The slowing of growth of law firm prosperity has a number of others beginning to feel uneasy, including interior design consultants, paralegals, secretaries, space planners, and commercial real estate brokers.

Law firms are "what every developer is putting up a building for in downtown Washington," said Gould. "I wonder if that's smart."