Whoops and applause erupted at the District of Columbia School of Law last week as word spread that the school had scored a major victory in its fight for accreditation -- the stamp of approval that means everything to a fledgling school.

But even in this moment of triumph, the city's public law school remained under siege.

Just weeks before, former mayor Marion Barry's Rivlin Commission recommended that the school be shut down. Then the new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, proposed cutting 28 percent from the school's $3.9 million budget -- a harsh blow to the struggling institution. Though the school appealed, Dixon is expected to reveal today that she'll proceed with the cuts.

For many a school this would have been catastrophic. But not for D.C. Law, which has grown up defying the odds. If there weren't a crisis going, Dean William L. Robinson would think he'd shown up in the wrong place for work.

"Here in the dean's office," Robinson said, "you rock and roll everyday."

It's been that way since the D.C. Council created the school in 1986 as the successor to the old Antioch School of Law -- the legendary school that broke traditions, served the poor, inspired fierce loyalty and finally died in chaos.

What D.C. Law inherited from Antioch was its mission: teaching through legal clinics, serving the disadvantaged, imbuing students with a sense of public service.

But it doesn't deserve Antioch's fate, despite the Rivlin Commission's pronouncement that a city with desperate educational needs and dire fiscal problems cannot afford a law school.

Among law schools in the District, this one is unique.

A D.C. resident can attend for $2,600 in tuition a year. Compare that to $15,430 at Georgetown law or $7,100 at Howard. While other law schools focus on grades and test scores for admission, D.C. Law looks beyond such criteria for other qualities.

In a city where law and government are major industries, shouldn't residents have an affordable way to join in? Elliott Milstein, the law school dean at American University, thinks the answer is easy. "It seems basic to what government ought to be doing," he said.

In its first three years, D.C. Law has wooed an eclectic student body of 158, many of whom are studying for a second or third career. About 38 percent are black; 11 percent are from other minority groups, and more than 50 percent are from D.C.

Some couldn't afford to go anywhere else in town. Some couldn't get in. Others wouldn't want to study law anywhere but this no-frills building at 719 13th Street NW.

At other schools, the majority of students seldom see a courtroom, much less a real, live client. But students at D.C. Law spend 650 hours working in faculty-supervised clinics, going to court and representing clients in everything from landlord-tenant feuds to battles against discrimination.

Students trained this way are more likely to head for public-interest law when they graduate. That, said consumer advocate Ralph Nader, is reason enough to keep the school alive.

"Ask yourself how many lawsuits should be filed against D.C. agencies that violate their charters and how many poor people can't get lawyers," Nader said. "If you had 10 D.C. Law Schools, it wouldn't be enough."

But perhaps the school's most valuable inheritance from Antioch is the lesson in what not to do. This is no den of jeans-clad radicals. Robinson looks more like public interest in pinstripes. An elegant man who has prepared and argued civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, he has one foot in the public-interest law community and another in the ABA Establishment -- the perfect combination for a long-shot law school with a liberal mission and meager funds.

Under his leadership, the full-time program is minding its basics: contracts, evidence and civil procedure. While Antioch used pass-fail, D.C. Law gives grades and students have flunked out.

The school has convinced an evaluation committee of the staid ABA that it deserves accreditation -- no small feat for a young, innovative place. Next week, the ABA House of Delegates must approve the committee's recommendation, but the House seldom breaks from committee action.

If the school passes this hurdle, there are still plenty of problems. Enrollment is tiny. The school has no permanent home. The new mayor is not exactly a fan. And there are many looming questions: Will graduates pass the bar? Will they flock to public-interest jobs, and will they stay in D.C.?

Robinson is betting that D.C. Law will be around to provide all the answers. It has powerful friends on the D.C. Council, and important support on Capitol Hill. What's more, it has spirit.

Robinson will never forget his first meeting with faculty in 1989 in a "room with half-built walls and light bulbs dangling from the ceiling.

"It was primitive," he said. "But an enormous sense of enthusiasm poured out of everybody about this new venture." Power Chain A South African lawyer is weaving a powerful chain with a letter he is circulating among American lawyers, asking them to go on record against apartheid and to send the letter to 10 colleagues. So far it has crisscrossed the country, reaching some of America's most prominent lawyers, including Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi, former ABA president Robert Raven, and Washington power lawyers Lloyd Cutler, John Pickering and William T. Coleman Jr.

Coleman got his letter from former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. "I did not break the chain," Coleman said. "I think anything to move that society is important."

Jilted Matchmaker?

Legal headhunter Erik Scudder claims he got jilted after successfully setting up a match between D.C. lawyer William H. Burchette and lawyer James F. Jorden, of Miami, who was looking to expand. Scudder, of New York's A-L Search, has filed suit in federal court in D.C. seeking a $175,000 fee and damages.

Jorden's partner, John H. Schulte, who also is named in the suit, said the firm never contracted for Scudder's services and none were provided. "Times are bad," said Schulte, "and headhunters are looking for everything they can."

Personalities

D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Theodore Roosevelt Newman Jr., who retired last week, had barely received his official portrait Friday when lawyers were lining up to replace him.

The big surprise is that former D.C. Superior Judge Reggie Walton is not one of the candidates. Speculation had been heavy that Walton, now deputy at the Office of National Drug Policy, would be a top contender. But Walton said he hasn't applied.

Others with judicial aspirations include J. Clay Smith, former dean and now a law professor at Howard, and former D.C. Council chairman David A. Clarke.

And on the subject of judges, word is that Williams & Connolly partner Robert Watkins may be named to the prestigious ABA committee that screens federal judges. There's a vacancy from D.C. since Frederick Abramson took over last month as D.C. Bar Counsel.