In American Bar Association lore, there is the vote of the big shrimp.

Legend has it that campaigns to lead the world's largest organization of lawyers have been won or lost at the hors d'oeuvres table.

In one recent race, presidential candidates went head to head wooing voters at competing parties at New York's Tavern on the Green and the 21 Club.

One lawyer laid on the more lavish spread at 21. The other came out a poor second. Fewer shrimp. More cucumber sandwiches.

No surprise, he lost.

But word has it that the ABA has moved beyond these culinary concerns.

And the burning political question this year is: Are America's lawyers ready for, perish the thought, a woman?

For the first time in ABA history, a woman, Roberta Cooper Ramo, plans to take her campaign for the presidency all the way to a final vote at the organization's convention next month in Seattle. Carole Kamin Bellows, now a judge in Chicago, ran in the mid-1980s, but dropped out before the crucial vote.

It is about time a woman has come to the fore. In August 1988, the ABA asserted that despite the huge influx of women into the profession in the past decade, women were often barred from the higher echelons of law schools, law firms and courthouses.

The ABA called on lawyers to break down those barriers. The organization might well have started with itself.

A decade ago, the problems were dramatized at an ABA convention cocktail party in Houston when a prominent male member was asked his opinion of the political future of a prominent female member. Within earshot of dozens of lawyers and reporters, he belittled her sexual prowess.

While those days appear long gone, the ABA has not exactly sprinted to overcome its old-boy image.

There are only four women on its 33-member board of governors and women make up only 10 percent of the ABA House of Delegates. It took many years and much debate before the ABA amended its judicial code to discourage judges from belonging to private clubs that exclude women. After passing a strong abortion-rights stand last February, the ABA reversed itself in a bitter battle.

Now the ABA is being tested again as a woman runs to lead the 367,000-member organization as president in 1992. Some seem surprised that Ramo, a lawyer from a 36-member firm in Albuquerque, has run such a strong race against two old ABA hands, J. Michael McWilliams of Baltimore and Allen E. Brennecke of Marshalltown, Iowa. Both are former chairmen of the ABA House of Delegates; both have been presidents of their state bars; both came up a traditional route to the ABA presidency.

Ramo has not. After law school, she worked as a teaching fellow at a small college in North Carolina, and then moved to Albuquerque, where she has spent most of her professional life at the small firm she now heads. She has chaired the ABA section that focuses on law practice management, not a position that would normally lead to the presidency.

But even McWilliams' and Brennecke's supporters admit that in joint appearances, Ramo has blown the opposition away.

"No one has the poor grace to say, 'I ain't voting for her because she's a woman,' " said one of her supporters. But the euphemisms abound: She hasn't paid her dues. She hasn't toiled in the ABA vineyard. She hasn't been the chair of this or that in the association.

True enough, said one supporter. But most of those chairs had "men-only signs" plastered on them when Ramo, 48, was on her way up.

Still, a handful of other women have compiled incredible re'sume's. If only one of them were running. But, then again, each has a fatal flaw, or so the men say.

Marna Tucker, former D.C. Bar president, is too liberal, they say. Sara-Ann Determan, current D.C. Bar president, is, shall we say, too impassioned in her causes. D.C. lawyer Carolyn Lamm, with her long list of ABA credentials, has made all the right moves, positioning herself for a run. She is, they whisper, too hungry.

And Martha Barnett of Florida? She can't run because she is from the same state as the ABA's president-elect. Barnett plans a run for chairman of the House, and maybe sometime after the year 2000 she will seek the ABA presidency.

Oh, well. The ABA will just keep on looking for that perfect woman.

One male observer of the scene said many in the ABA might well be singing Rex Harrison's refrain from "My Fair Lady": Why can't a woman be more like a man?

This lawyer thinks the men who dominate the ABA's 61-member nominating committee have an image of an ABA president "who worked his way up through state bar politics ... who is accustomed to espousing the familiar themes ... who can harrumph at all the right times."

Ironically, Ramo is not exactly the darling of some of the activist women in the ABA. Privately, they say they would prefer someone with a long history of fighting the causes of feminism and civil rights.

Ramo, in the face of all that, still has made some gains.

Early on, said New York lawyer Barbara Mendel Mayden, supporters of McWilliams and Brennecke kept presenting it as a "two-person race ... like the woman is just invisible. Well Roberta does not do invisible very well."

And so she is heading to Seattle as the long shot, perhaps with enough votes to stop the others from winning on the first ballot. If that happens, some say she has a shot.

In two years of campaigning, Ramo has changed some minds and focused on new issues. Her supporters are diverse, some from the very heart of the establishment, including New York ABA delegate Alexander Forger, chairman of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. Pardon our chauvinism, but Milbank Tweed is not exactly a hotbed of feminist radicals.

"No one should vote for her because of gender," Forger said. "They should vote on the merits. But this is just a marvelous opportunity to put in office a superb candidate who can tell the world at large that the ABA is reaching out to be all-inclusive, that there is a place in the hierarchy and indeed at the top for a woman."

Associates Draw the Line

It seems as if associates at Arnold & Porter were willing to do their share in the faltering economy when the firm announced that it would hold the line on salaries for new associates in 1991 at $70,000.

Then came news that the firm was eliminating its 7.5 percent contribution to a profit-sharing plan for associates. That was going too far, some associates grumbled. "It was like a punch in the stomach," said one young lawyer.

Managing partner James W. Jones said A&P was one of the few firms in the nation that made such contributions, but "market forces" this year dictated some cutbacks. Associates still will be getting their seniority raises in 1991, Jones noted, just "for having lived another year."

Calling All Employers

The recession has hit small law firms in the D.C. area.

Ina Young, placement director at American University's law school, reports that only 20 small firms signed up for the recruiting program held each winter by a consortium of local law schools. In years past, as many as 50 firms had shown up. "We are assuming the economy is the cause," Young said.