Twenty former partners of the bankrupt Finley, Kumble law firm have been ordered by a federal judge to repay nearly $1 million they borrowed from the now defunct National Bank of Washington.

The money will go into the coffers of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which took over NBW last August in one of the costliest bank failures ever. While the $1 million won't go far toward the $300 million cost of the bank's demise, it is the first time the FDIC has tested a statute here that provides special status for the agency in collecting from borrowers of failed institutions.

"It's a good test of the special defenses of the FDIC and evidence of the long-standing policy of the agency to pursue these claims," said Keith Ligon, managing attorney for NBW at the FDIC. "It's good news for us."

The lawyers, who each borrowed different amounts of money, defaulted on the loans after their national law firm -- Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey -- failed in 1987. When NBW sued them for repayment of the loans they contended that they were coerced into obtaining the loans by senior partners of the firm.

The partners who borrowed said they were pressured to do so in order to buy stock in Merchant Bank of California. That bank was founded by Finley, Kumble managing partner Marshall Manley, who was also the bank's chairman from its inception in 1982 until July 1985. The bank failed earlier this year.

The 20 attorneys contended that they were under "economic duress" to take out the loans and signed notes because of the threat that their wages and standing in the firm would decrease if they refused, according to court papers.

Because of the duress, the bankrupt law firm's estate -- not the attorneys -- should have been held liable for the debts, they said.

But U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt found this week that because of the FDIC's special standing, only physical compulsion could render the transaction void.

NBW lent $2.2 million to about 60 members of the law firm in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $200,000. The bank or the FDIC as receiver already had collected about $1 million from other attorneys, including 12 partners in the firm's Washington office, who paid before being sued.

Only one lawyer in the Washington area was sued. Robert Pinco, with Baker & Hostetler, was ordered to pay the FDIC more than $32,000 recently in a related matter.