NEW YORK, NOV. 21 -- Crippled by the cost of defending more than 100 lawsuits, a falloff in business and several last-ditch attempts to merge with other accounting firms, Laventhol & Horwath today filed for bankruptcy in New York.

The nation's seventh-largest accounting firm is seeking protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. It is particularly seeking refuge from lawsuits accusing the firm of sloppy work, according to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.

Laventhol's bankruptcy petition, which includes more than 200 pages of exhibits, asks the court to suspend activity in 115 pending lawsuits so partners can complete their work, collect fees and "maximize the value of {Laventhol's} assets" for creditors.

The suits seek a total of $362 million in damages.

The documents offer an illuminating glimpse of the forces that crushed Laventhol and the sense of doom that gripped the firm in its final months.

Since January, Laventhol's operating costs have increased, its earnings have fallen off and its legal costs have skyrocketed, yet bank credit has dried up, Levine said in his affidavit. The firm laid off employees, cut salaries, reduced or eliminated payouts to partners and implemented "unilateral rent reductions" at its offices.

The documents list assets of $146 million. Current liabilities amount to $153.3 million, but, Levine said, the firm could lose "tens of millions of dollars" from the pending lawsuits. As Laventhol's condition worsened, partners made last-ditch efforts to restructure operations through mergers or acquisitions with its competitors, "all to no avail," he said.

Michael J. Crames, a New York attorney representing Laventhol in bankruptcy court, could not be reached today for comment. Louis J. Grossman, a spokesman for the firm, would not comment on the filing.

The biggest creditor appears to be Fidelity Bank of Philadelphia, which is owed $59.2 million, documents show. Chase Manhattan Bank, of New York, is owed $24.5 million.

The effect of Laventhol's bankruptcy, believed to be the largest collapse of any professional partnership, is beginning to ripple through other professions.

Unlike in a corporation, where officers and directors are shielded from personal liability for the company's failures, the members of a partnership can be held liable for debts and other problems. Legal experts and academicians say Laventhol's partners could be wiped out by the firm's collapse.

"This is a very, very bad thing," said Alvin H. Carley, who teaches accounting at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "The partners' assets are badly exposed."