Michael Allen and Graciela Vazquez de Schwartz were both great catches for the overworked legal team at Neighborhood Legal Services. Experienced and energetic, neither of these lawyers was daunted by the cramped quarters and crushing caseloads in the D.C. program that provides legal aid to the poor.

Both had even passed that final test where NLS executive director Willie Cook stares into your eyes looking for the commitment in your soul. Cook stared hard and then offered Allen and de Schwartz jobs in his program.

Today both are doing legal work for the poor -- but not in the District of Columbia.

They are working in the suburbs, after finding out just how little the D.C. program could pay them now or promise them in the future. They and 20 other lawyers slipped through Cook's grasp this year because he couldn't pay them enough.

A decade after the Reagan administration moved to kill off the federally funded Legal Services Corp. (LSC), legal aid programs around the nation are still hanging on -- but some, like D.C.'s, only by a thread.

At Neighborhood Legal Services, where lawyers fresh out of law school earn $19,350 a year and supervisors with years of experience can't crack $40,000, it is getting awfully tough to attract and hold the kind of lawyers Cook wants to hire. It's little wonder that the competition is killing him. An assistant U.S. attorney fresh out of law school garners $24,700 a year, a public defender gets $32,000 and at the big downtown law firms, new associates draw $65,000 and up. That beats Cook's salary after 21 years on the job by more than $5,000.

But even for public interest work, Cook's $19,350 offer to young lawyers appears to be some sort of record.

"Print it," said Joan Claybrook, whose lawyers at Public Citizen are notoriously low-paid. "It will make us feel good around here."

"Tell Willie that is outrageous," joked Chuck Vasaly, who runs Legal Services of Northern Virginia, where the starting salary is $26,800 and where Allen is now working.

But Vasaly knows all too well this is no laughing matter. NLS -- the largest provider of civil legal aid to the poor in D.C. -- had 36 lawyers in 1981. Today, Cook has 20 slots in his program -- a misleading figure when in reality he limped through 1990 with at least seven vacancies. It has never been easy to attract committed and talented lawyers, Cook said, but this year for the first time it is becoming nearly impossible.

For the past year, the program has been forced to turn away new clients at its Anacostia office, where one lawyer has been trying to do the work of four. Other offices, deluged with work, have rejected new clients, referring them to other programs. No one really knows if they ever found assistance.

People with legal problems and nowhere to turn are, of course, the real losers. So is the system of justice. People evicted unfairly or mistreated in other ways have a right to legal representation, even if they can't afford it. But unable to hire lawyers, NLS is not providing the service the system promises. Like many legal aid providers, Cook is at a crossroads.

Thus far, he has held the line on salaries and tried to compete for talented lawyers while offering the lowest pay in town. That choice has left him down seven lawyers all year. Instead, he could pare down his staff and increase salaries in an effort to hire and hold good lawyers.

Cook's problems merely reflect the disastrous fallout of the last decade, when legal aid became a favorite conservative target and the Reagan administration sought to slash its budget and restrict its powers. While his program has suffered, the politics of it all only made Cook more determined. "My gas tank," Cook said, "runs on conflict."

Now, supporters of legal services are looking to the Bush administration and wondering what changes will take place.

David Martin, the new LSC president appointed by Bush, said he has no immediate answer for Cook. But with budget cuts and competing demands for federal money, he suggested that Cook and other legal service providers look elsewhere for help. He cited pro bono work by private lawyers, and proceeds from special attorney trust funds in many states -- two sources already being tapped.

Legal Services of Northern Virginia gets money from state and local governments, the United Way and certain attorney trust funds.

Cook's program, which had a budget in 1990 of $1.5 million, gets virtually all of its money from the federal government. It receives no local government funds and only a small sum from highly sought after D.C. trust funds.

Cook said he and his board of directors are making a "major push" to look for new sources of money before reducing the number of positions. As long as slots are there, Cook said, there is always hope that he can fill them.

"The community deserves an aggressive and viable legal services program," he said. "It would be criminal for a service like NLS to go by the boards or be reduced to almost nothing. That would be insane." Merry Christmas, D.C. Judges When President Bush signed an executive order last week, it made D.C. judges among the highest paid in the nation. Since 1970, D.C. judges' salaries have been tied to their brethren on the federal bench. Smart move.

So when Congress voted to raise federal judges salaries, the D.C. judges were along for the ride.

The raise, to take effect Jan. 1, brings D.C. Appeals Court judges to $133,300 a year; Superior Court judges to $125,700.

Maryland and Virginia judges, who depend on the state for their raises, might take some lessons from their D.C. peers. Maryland judges aren't expecting a raise any time soon, and Virginia judges have been asked to forgo a raise slated for this month.

Revolving Doors Former U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova joins the Washington office of Chicago's Hopkins & Sutter as a partner. Client conflicts forced him to opt out when his old firm, Bishop, Cook, Purcell & Reynolds, merged with Chicago's Winston & Strawn. ... The revolving door on Capitol Hill whirls and out comes Thomas M. Sneeringer, legislative director for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). Sneeringer is joining Chicago's Katten Muchin Zavis & Dombroff as a partner here. ... Meanwhile, Sneeringer's new firm is making a move itself. Leaving behind downtown offices, Katten Muchin is moving to Georgetown, where they'll take over space once occupied by ill-fated Heron, Burchette, Ruckert & Rothwell. Worried about bad vibes? "No, I don't think that is a major concern to us," said managing partner Allan B. Muchin. "But just in case ... we are remodeling."

Conscience Raising The D.C. Bar's annual training seminar for lawyers who want to work with the homeless drew a standing-room-only crowd Dec. 9. That drew a sigh of relief from lawyers worried that with out their star attraction, the late Mitch Snyder as keynote speaker, the session might be a bust.

But attorney Florence Wagman Roisman, of the National Housing Project, took over the task with aplomb, drawing some laughs as she urged the young audience to do pro bono work. "You all have an innate sense of right and wrong, even though it took a beating in law school," Roisman joked. "Dig down. You still have it."