In the land of rent-a-judges and simulated juries there is now the mock courtroom, the newest trial tool -- not to mention status symbol -- at the law firm of the '90s.

The mock courtroom looks, as one would expect, much like the real thing. At some firms in Washington and around the nation, it looks even better.

At Swidler & Berlin, in Georgetown, the mock courtroom, with its burnished wood and polished black granite, suggests that International-Court-at-The-Hague sort of look. At Kirkland & Ellis's mock courtroom in Chicago, one visiting lawyer said he "almost genuflected" when he went through. "It looked like the most auspicious, formal federal court I had ever seen in my life."

Kirkland's certainly has video cameras and a control room that could put many a TV station to shame. On a smaller scale, all the mocks have cameras and microphones to record every nuance of lawyer argument and witness response as they rehearse, or ah, prepare for trial.

It's all part of the mock courtroom's stated purpose -- to train young lawyers and, most importantly, to win when the courtroom is real. And it doesn't hurt in the quest to impress. After all, in these competitive times, everybody's looking for an edge.

If you'd walked into Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue's mock courtroom in Washington one day last year, you'd have caught several partners playing trial. In preparation for a products liability case, one sat behind the bench as the judge, another examined an expert witness and a third, in the role of opposing counsel, shot objections across the handsome mock courtroom. Others on the trial team watched and critiqued.

All of it was taped, then played back in stop-action snippets to refine the testimony, get rid of bad word choices and make matters clearer, said Jones, Day partner Thomas McKim.

"One great asset is the witness can see himself," McKim said. "If a guy is looking down at his shoes while he testifies, it shows him what he's doing."

For a few of the biggest cases, a mock jury, selected by a litigation consulting firm, is added, and lawyers conduct a make-believe trial to test jury response.

Some trial lawyers think it's downright silly. "Ask them this," one of them chuckled. "If they lose in the mock courtroom, do they go upstairs to appeal in the mock appellate courtroom?"

Others, like Arthur Bryant of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, have deeper concerns, wondering if all this expensive playacting is subverting the adversary system's search for truth.

Morrison & Foerster's Robert Hanley, a big fan of mock courtrooms, acknowledges that a case could be made "that this is a contrivance, an abuse of the jury system." But Hanley believes that jurors, particularly in complex civil cases, are often "mystified" by the process. Anything that can make presentations clearer and lawyers better is a plus, he said.

Time was when lawyers prepared for trial in a conference room or office. Many still do. So why do they need wood paneling, a judge's bench and an American flag?

Hanley, an old football player, likens trial preparation to the scrimmage before a big game, where you want the pressure to approximate the real thing. "The more you make it look and feel like a real trial," Hanley said, "the better training experience it is."

Gary Kohlman, a former D.C. public defender, said even without these trappings, lawyers have always found ways to prepare. After they closed the old D.C. courthouse, Kohlman and colleagues would get a janitor to unlock an old courtroom and practice, Kohlman said. "So welcome to the 20th century, big-time law firms."

Still, the big-time law firms are somewhat schizophrenic about their latest acquisitions.

Some lawyers love to show them off, though initially many thought "it was a bit of an unnecessary bauble," said John B. Williams, a partner at Collier, Shannon & Scott, which built its mock courtroom last year. "They love it now. ... By my count this is the second stop on the sightseeing tour {of the firm}."

But lawyers don't want fee-paying clients too impressed, lest this look like an expensive lawyer toy. "Ferguson's folly," said John Ferguson with a nervous laugh as he opened the door to Swidler's mock court last week.

Ferguson and his brethren are rabid about this: the courtroom has multiple uses -- conference room and lecture hall; training for associates; and a great recruiting tool.

And in the lucrative world of law, the cost is relatively small.

Collier, Shannon built theirs for about $10,000, Williams said. Ferguson insists he isn't sure how much Swidler's cost, but, "You can do it ... for between $60,000 and $150,000."

University of Texas law professor Michael E. Tigar said the mocks are a fine idea as long as the firms don't forget reality amid all the make-believe.

Tigar said he once was asked by a firm how to follow up on its training for young lawyers in its mock courtroom. "I said, 'Why not ... take young lawyers down to the local courts and let them try a landlord-tenant or domestic relations case on a pro bono basis?' "

That was something the law firm had never thought of.

Robinson Retires After 27 years on the bench, Spottswood W. Robinson III, who took senior status on the federal appeals court here in 1989, will retire at month's end. Doctor's orders, Robinson said, and he's none too happy about it.

Robinson, 74, a noted black civil rights lawyer who helped argue Brown v. Board of Education, was the court's last link to the pro-civil rights administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Fellow judges will honor him at a reception Thursday. "I've never heard an angry word out of his mouth," said Judge Abner J. Mikva. "Not many people you can say that about."

Robinson said he will miss the court, "particularly the friendships you develop. ... I'm doing my best to keep them alive."

Personalities Raymond Banoun, who has defended his share of big Washington names, is following the path to New York law firms led by some of his prominent colleagues in the white-collar bar. Banoun leaves Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn to become a partner at the D.C. office of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, taking along much of Arent, Fox's white-collar team -- Harry Damelin, Kenneth Troccoli and Martha Rogers ... James A. Baker IV made partner this month at the D.C. office of Baker & Botts, the Texas firm his great-grandfather brought to prominence. Baker's father, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, never worked there. The firm's nepotism rule, you know. By the time "Jamie" Baker came along, his grandfather, also a partner, had died ... Chief Judge Patricia M. Wald, of the U.S. appeals court here, turned over the reins Saturday to her colleague Judge Abner J. Mikva. The switch occurred just in the nick of time. Mikva turns 65 today, and would be ineligible to become chief. Wald's voluntary move keeps the chief judgeship in Democratic hands for years to come ... Former D.C. Council chairman David A. Clarke joins the faculty of the District of Columbia School of Law. Clarke will co-direct a clinic to teach students how laws are drafted and passed.