The nation's law professors still have a long way to go when it comes to doing public interest work.

At the Association of American Law Schools conference last week in Washington, professors and deans from around the nation received a jolt from some of their peers on this unsettling issue.

"We can lead by example in our own lives," said Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet, a conference participant. "If a law student walked in and found a welfare recipient in our office being represented, that would do more for students than anything else we're talking about."

What a novel approach.

Like many lawyers in private practice who are too busy making money to be bothered with pro bono work, professors caught up in the pursuit of tenure and prestige give little thought to the professional ideal that public service is every lawyer's job.

As debate rages around the nation over whether pro bono work should be mandatory for all attorneys, law professors are coming face to face with the grim news that they are lawyers too, and might be forced to take on the same responsibilities as, God forbid, the practicing bar and even their own students.

New York's chief judge Sol Wachtler has given the state bar until next year to make volunteer pro bono efforts really work, or else he'll propose that every lawyer -- professors included -- be required to perform 40 hours of free legal work every two years.

New York University Prof. Sylvia Law, a speaker at last week's conference, said few of her NYU colleagues are aware that the mandatory system would apply to them. And even though professors are included in the requirement, Law said, the state bar report that spurred Wachtler's move did not call on law schools as institutions to do anything. "It was pathetic," Law said.

Still, according to Law, "students are fired up in a way we have not seen since the 1970s."

The National Association for Public Interest Law, a student coalition, is pushing on more than 100 campuses to make pro bono work a requirement to graduate from law school. Mandatory pro bono programs have sprouted -- usually after vociferous debate -- on seven campuses, including the University of Pennsylvania, Florida State and Tulane. A task force at American University is studying a proposal for a mandatory program there, and at Harvard, the faculty is set to debate a proposal to increase public interest courses and clinical work for students.

Backers of these programs hope that the habits learned in law school will carry into the next generation's professional life.

But a funny thing happened on the way to getting these programs passed. When faculty leaders suggested that professors assume the same pro bono requirement they were imposing on students, many ran for cover.

At Tulane, which passed the nation's first mandatory program, strategists dumped the faculty issue for fear it would sink the whole proposal. "We felt politically our faculty, for academic freedom reasons, would not buy into imposing {mandatory pro bono} on themselves," said Robert Clayton, an associate dean who helped formulate the program.

At the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, professors approved what is now a highly regarded student program, but were split on mandating pro bono for themselves. That part of the proposal died.

A bit hypocritical?

"Well, faculty have no problem with hypocrisy," joked Prof. Andrew Watson of the University of Michigan.

Prof. Law believes that "a substantial minority" of professors already perform public service, often by being active in bar associations or writing appellate briefs. And some regard their teaching as a form of public service. But when it comes to taking on a landlord-tenant case for a poor person, or the like? "Only a handful," Law sighed.

Still, there were some good signs at the educators' conference. There was, first of all, the daylong public service program itself, proving that some teachers care enough to grapple with the issue.

True, only about 350 of the more than 3,000 convention registrants signed up for the workshop, and fewer than 100 were left when the workshop ended. But Talbot D'Alemberte, the dean at Florida State when mandatory pro bono was approved there and president-elect of the American Bar Association, said the turnout sounded good to him.

He can remember meetings on fledgling public service initiatives that drew three people. "If people are serious and begin to take this back to their faculties, even at the snail's pace of the academic process, we could have a real movement here," D'Alemberte said. "That is encouraging."

What's even more encouraging is the coming generation of lawyers. At the conference, they brought this message to their teachers. "Sometimes you folks may not think this, but we care about what you say," Kathleen Welch, a law student at State University of New York at Buffalo, told the gathering. "Please work with us. Students are energized. ... They'll follow you by example and work with you."

Court Intrigue

When it comes to judicial appointments, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer just can't seem to stay out of hot water. Schaefer has just emerged from the political tug of war over his last appointment to the Maryland Court of Appeals and now he has plunged into a bigger controversy over the latest vacancy.

When Harry A. Cole, the only black jurist on the state's highest court, announced his retirement last fall, conventional wisdom had Schaefer appointing Robert M. Bell, a respected black judge on the Court of Special Appeals, who applied for the seat.

Instead, Schaefer has expanded the search, calling for more applicants.

The Baltimore Sun said last month that Schaefer has something against Bell. They didn't say what, and leaders of the legislature's black caucus say they are mystified. "I don't know what it is, if there even is anything," said state Sen. Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore). "And I'm not going to put any more fire or oil on this situation than there already is."

Supporters of Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, also a strong contender, have suggested that the expanded search is merely subterfuge so Schaefer can name Kaplan.

"There are more theories than there are candidates," joked one observer.

Applications from other interested lawyers are due by Wednesday. Stay tuned.

And Now, on the Big Screen ...

As the Keating Five hearings grind on in the Senate, Roll Call, the Capitol Hill tabloid, is already envisioning Keating Five, the movie. In a spoof last month, editors even began casting the parts. For the role of Robert S. Bennett, the committee's special counsel, Roll Call cast rotund comedian John Candy.

Bennett was not enthused. But his wife made a valiant effort at spin control, saying that the resemblance surely wasn't physical. Roll Call obviously picked Candy, she opined, because Bennett "has such a good sense of humor."

Said Bennett: "Now, there's a woman who really loves her husband."