Charles Mancuso hopes to be at the same desk in the same office, ready for "business as usual" Monday morning. Only the name on the door will change.

Albert Ellentuck plans to set up a law and tax consulting practice, becoming "the captain of my fate" after 23 years with one employer.

Darryl E. Huckaby is "on the open market." Does he have a business card? "Sure," he said with a smile. "Take 'em all."

Mancuso, Ellentuck and Huckaby are among some 148 people here for whom yesterday was the last day of work for the national accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath. L&H, battered by lawsuits, rising debt and the downturn in the economy, announced yesterday that it would seek protection under federal bankruptcy laws today and in all likelihood go out of business.

"A series of tragic circumstances brought this proud firm to this sad day," Robert N. Levine, executive partner of the firm, said in a statement released at the firm's home office in Philadelphia. "Now the proud name of Laventhol & Horwath will exist no more."

Laventhol, the nation's seventh-largest accounting firm, was brought down primarily by lawsuits by investors, regulators and others who believed the firm failed to make public the problems of some of its clients. Most prominent is a pending lawsuit by donors to television evangelist Jim Bakker that accuses L&H and another accounting firm of overseeing a secret fund that was used to pay millions of dollars to Bakker and others.

"Most accounting firms are suffering from high litigation costs, and our firm is no exception," Levine said. He also said that the firm had hit a cash squeeze that meant it could not make payments on $85 million in bank debt. "The clock ran out on us," he said.

L&H offices around the country reacted differently to the announcement, with some attempting to remain open, but as new firms, and others closing down.

At the Washington office yesterday afternoon, the mood was glum. Employees had only 36 hours' notice that they might lose their jobs and they had just been told they would not be paid for the last eight days.

A security guard, on the phone to his office to make sure he had enough help, said, "Things are going haywire in Chicago and we don't want that here."

On the front desk were stacks of photocopied letters, one to the employees from Levine, the other to "State Unemployment Commissioner."

In his letter, Levine expressed regret and praised the employees for their loyalty but added, "at this time we are not able to advise you of what payment, if any, can be made with respect to your salary to date, expenses or the status of your medical, life and disability insurances."

The other letter leaves a blank for the employee to fill in his or her name and then advises state officials that "the above employee was ... terminated and we believe is eligible for unemployment benefits immediately."

Accounting salaries are not generally public, but Arthur W. Bowman, editor of Bowman's Accounting Report, an Atlanta-based newsletter, estimated that pay here would range from about $22,000 for a starting professional with an undergraduate accounting degree to about $150,000 for a senior partner.

Private security guards manned doors and reception areas on all three floors of the firm's offices at 1101 17th St. NW, checking as partners and employees, many clad in blue jeans, cleaned out files.

"It's like a puzzle," said Ellentuck, a specialist in tax and small business planning. "I've got the pieces," but he said he hasn't quite worked out how they will fit together.

An attorney as well as a certified public accountant, Ellentuck said he will set up a law practice with tax consulting as its basic service.

He said "the next two weeks will be a little scary," but he is optimistic that he can make it. Ellentuck said it was not until two or three weeks ago that he began to get a real sense "that we might not make it." He said the Washington "practice was going along beautifully," adding business and seemingly prospering.

A partners' meeting in Houston over the weekend, at which the real extent of L&H's troubles was spelled out, "was a real shock," he said.

On another floor at the other end of the building, Mancuso said that he and three other L&H partners, including his brother Samuel, are going to try to keep the local practice going. He said the new firm of Mancuso, Jones, Kampel & Mancuso will stay in the same offices, although with less space, and will keep 60 or 70 of the present L&H support staff.

"We had to move fast," Mancuso said, fully aware that competitors are already casting a covetous eye on L&H's clientele, which includes such firms as Giant Food Inc. and the Charles E. Smith Co.

He said the response from clients has been encouraging so far, with almost all indicating they will stay.

The competition promises to be tough, however. A partner at a competing firm said yesterday that his office was busy pulling together a list of L&H clients here with an eye toward "doing a little bottom fishing."

At Giant, David BSykes, executive vice president for finance, said, "Everything is in a state of flux." He said Giant has already had "some overtures" from other accountants, but no decision will be made for some time. William E. Offutt of Offutt Childers & Putman, a small firm in Tysons Corner, said the bankruptcy will be disruptive. Many companies are on calendar years, he noted, so only a few weeks remain to get the annual audit going.

The former L&H partners also face the possibility that they may have to reach into their own pockets to cover the debts owed by the firm. In a general partnership such as L&H, bankruptcy does not shield partners from liability, and all partners are individually liable for all the firm's debts.

Meanwhile, in the 13th-floor lobby area of the L&H offices, Huckaby and co-workers exchanged hugs and wry smiles. Huckaby said he was headed for Connecticut to spend the holiday with relatives. "Hey," said a colleague. "Might as well."