Ah, to be alive this holiday season. The joy of giving, of sharing, of spending time with family and friends.

Ah, to be a lawyer this holiday season. The joy of one-upsmanship, the self-aggrandizing gesture and most of all, the joy of a good, juicy holiday lawsuit.

Take the case of Harry Lipsig, one of Manhattan's premier personal injury lawyers, 88 years old and still flashy as ever. He is itching to dish out his traditional serving of holiday cheer -- 60,000 Christmas cards to clients and doctors, politicians and police officers, fellow lawyers and those on the bench.

For 60 years it has been "quite a tradition" to receive a Lipsig greeting, said Susan Dwyer, one of his attorneys. "Everybody who is anybody and people who are nobody got cards from Harry Lipsig."

But alas, Lipsig broke with his longtime law firm last year, and now he is charging that they have hung onto his precious index card file, the stuff of his Christmas card list.

Lipsig has sued his old partners, now the principals in Sullivan & Liapakis. It will be up to the New York courts to sort out this mess when the new year dawns.

Meanwhile, Lipsig has muddled through, sending greetings to a mere 30,000.

As far as his former partner, Pamela Liapakis, is concerned, that's 30,000 too many. The holiday cards are a form of solicitation, she charged, and that's forbidden by the partners' agreement to dissolve the firm.

It's hard to imagine so much turmoil over a card with a little reindeer on it.

"Clients are sending the cards in, screaming and complaining about the fact that they are getting them," Liapakis said. Some of those clients have followed the battle in the New York newspapers, where it recently has created quite a splash.

The whole thing is creating "confusion," she charged. They are her clients. And they want to know why they are getting cards from Harry, Liapakis said.

And Sullivan & Liapakis's Christmas card? Well, that's a different story. "I am exchanging greetings," Liapakis declared. "He is going to carry on a whole campaign."

Even partners who still like each other seem to clash over just how to spread holiday cheer. What with sensitivity about religion and worries over firm image, it is little wonder that the right holiday card is a critical decision.

The choice can be "terrifying," says Burkey Belser, a Washington marketing consultant who has brought more than a few partners through this crisis.

His advice? Don't pick the card by committee. "It can't come out without blood all over it."

As everyone learned in law school, the true spirit of Christmas is one-upsmanship. Maryland lawyers Barry Helfand and Alan Goldstein have honed this to a fine art. What started in 1986 as a simple holiday lunch for their two small law offices has turned into a whimsical competition, wherein each lawyer tries to outdo the other's last Christmas gesture.

One year, Helfand arrived for lunch in a stretch limo. The next, Goldstein answered back by whirring out of the sky in a helicopter. The competition has since turned to a war over their reputations as trial lawyers.

And last Friday for Christmas, Helfand literally buried Goldstein's reputation. He bought him a tombstone, engraved: "Here lies the reputation of Alan Goldstein ... the second best lawyer in Maryland." The bottom of the tombstone adds, "From the first, Barry Helfand."

The press agent for Melvin Belli, a man who makes Harry Lipsig look shy, says Belli is mass-mailing 79,000 Christmas cards, including 5,000 to the troops in Saudi Arabia.

Belli says it's actually 100,000 cards -- but then, who's counting -- including one to Saddam Hussein, which Belli personally signed, patted and blessed.

We're sure the Iraqi president will be happy to know that the King of Torts really cares. (And just in case Hussein doesn't know who the King of Torts is, the card is splashed with 11 photos of octogenarian Belli.)

Those without Belli's wherewithal can still project a double dose of legal imagery by going the catalogue route.

"Convey your professional stature and impeccable taste with this elegant holiday card," reads the catalogue from Drawing Board. The Fort Worth company has been hawking its cards for lawyers for more than 20 years. They offer humorous selections, too. But lawyers, one salesman says, tend to go for the more formal look. "They will spend more money for foil, for scales of justice with bows. We find that they will buy the higher quality card, more than the joke."

With the scent of Christmas bonuses in the air comes the news that those law school grads fortunate enough to land a job at Arnold & Porter will start next fall at $70,000, the same salary given to the class of 1990. It's the first time in years that the firm has held the line on new associate salaries and it means the raises going to associates already at the firm will be smaller.

Said one associate in the holiday spirit of giving rather than receiving: "Quite a few of us are happy to be getting paid what we are ... It would take a hardened person to feel badly for not getting a raise."

Other lawyers know that the true meaning of Christmas is giving. They also know the value of some good PR.

D.C. malpractice lawyer Jack H. Olender celebrated the season by handing out $75,000 to charity -- along with some awards -- in the Mayflower Hotel's grand ballroom.

Amid hundreds of guests, the bright lights of photographer's flashbulbs and music by the Dunbar High School Marching Band, Olender gave out his "Olender Peacemaker Award," bestowed by, who else, the Olender Foundation.

To those who say this is a wee bit self-promoting, Olender has a simple answer: "Let them give some of the fabulous money they make as lawyers ... to charity. If they want to get publicity, more power to 'em."

That must be the philosophy of some law firms around town, whose attorneys and staff collected thousands of dollars, shopped for toys and wrapped presents in the true spirit of giving.

Then the firms sent out press releases. "The wrapping party will be held all day Saturday ...," said one communique from a PR firm. "This is a wonderful photo opportunity if you are looking for a way to illustrate ... charity gift-giving."

Pamela Liapakis, while enmeshed in her battle with Lipsig, admits that fighting over Christmas cards is no way to spend the holidays. "Next year," she said, "I think everyone should donate to charity."