One of Washington's top 20 firms recently flirted with bringing in a partner who specialized in patent law. But a telling roadblock cropped up: The lawyer, a partner at a mid-sized patent boutique in Northern Virginia, was making $750,000 a year -- more than the average per-partner profits at even the most profitable D.C. law firms.

"We couldn't afford him," sighed a lawyer from the big firm who did not want to be identified. "And he told us he was just one of the lesser partners' back at his firm."

The boom in such technological fields as biotech, computers and medicine, and the rise of ideas and inventions as major assets in the global economy have made intellectual property one of today's hottest legal specialties. With biotech and computer companies spending billions to develop state-of-the-art products, they also are willing to spend huge amounts on lawyers to protect those products from competitors.

Once viewed as the province of egghead engineers with pocket protectors and slide rules, the specialty in recent years has acquired profitability and prestige. Its practitioners might still have engineering or science degrees, but they are no longer dismissed as nerdy patent lawyers. Now, the broad field -- which includes patent, copyright and trademark -- is known as intellectual property and even goes by a jaunty nickname, "IP."

Huge corporate law firms in Washington, eager to cash in on this burgeoning practice, have begun wooing IP lawyers away from the boutiques and large specialty firms that once dominated the field. Just last week, Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, a huge San Francisco-based firm with a Washington office, brought D.C.'s Cushman Darby & Cushman into the firm in a merger. Cushman Darby is a highly respected firm that had grown to more than 65 lawyers specializing in IP law.

Pillsbury is one of several major firms now competing with the specialty firms, particularly in big-bucks patent litigation. Earlier this year, Raymond Lupo led the 16-lawyer D.C. office of a Chicago IP firm, Willian Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, to the D.C. office of McDermott, Will & Emery, a corporate firm of more than 500 lawyers. Steptoe & Johnson, the District's 10th largest firm, has hired nearly 10 IP lawyers -- including a core group from Cushman Darby -- since October.

The Baltimore-based Venable firm, which has a large presence in the District, Rockville and McLean, has about 22 lawyers doing IP work. While many of its clients are national, the firm has found the telecommunications, systems integrators and biotech companies sprouting around the Beltway to be fonts of IP work, according to Venable partner James Myers.

The Washington area still has a large share of profitable IP specialty boutiques, including Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, an IP firm that has grown to 150 lawyers. Many of the small and mid-sized boutiques are clustered in Northern Virginia, where rents are often cheaper than in the District and the Patent and Trademark Office is close by in Crystal City.

"People used to battle over real estate, whether you owned this piece of property or that," said Lupo, who heads McDermott, Will's IP practice. But in the past 15 years, the property that has come to count, he said, is "the property of the mind: the inventions you come up with, the secrets you have in how to make a particular product, what you write."

Changes in the court system also helped spur IP litigation and business for law firms. Before 1980, companies were loath to go to court to defend patents because infringement claims were seldom upheld by the federal appellate courts. But in 1982, a court specializing in patent appeals, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, was established in Washington. It began upholding patents, opening the door to a flood of litigation.

Companies began filing for more patents, aggressively defending them and licensing their products to competitors who wanted to use them. Counterfeiters of products ranging from radios to jeans made work for trademark lawyers; the entertainment and publishing fields fueled copyright cases.

The boom has reverberated through the profession.

IP programs at law schools, such as George Washington University in the District and Franklin Pierce College in Concord, N.H., have grown dramatically in the past five years. Law firms are hungry for fledgling IP associates, especially from top law schools. "They are out there," said David Roll, of Steptoe & Johnson. "But the competition is extraordinary."

Paul Rothenburg, of the McCormick Group in Arlington, which conducts law firm employment searches, said "IP is at the top of every search list we get." Rothenburg, for instance, is conducting a search for the D.C. office of New York's Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, where partner Philip Verveer said he wants an IP lawyer to work with his telecommunications practice.

Other firms are looking to gobble up entire IP boutiques. "There isn't an IP firm in the area that is not contacted every month or two by a general practice firm" looking to acquire it or cherry-pick practice groups, said Stephen Becker, of Alexandria's Lowe, Price, LeBlanc & Becker, an IP firm.

One attraction is IP's profitability. IP partners on average earn $237,000 a year -- topping all other legal specialties, including trial and corporate law, surveyed in 1995 by Altman Weil Pensa Inc., a legal consulting firm. Patent work is highly leveraged: Much of it is done by associates and paralegals on salary, meaning more profit for partners.

The entrance of the large firms into the field has put pressure on the small boutiques and even the larger specialty firms, IP lawyers said.

Raymond Sweigart, managing partner of Cushman Darby, said his firm decided the future lies with big firms like its merger partner, Pillsbury. Those firms had previously been a source of referrals, he said. In recent times, not only had the referrals dried up, but the big firms had become competitors. "There certainly was a bit of If you can't lick 'em, join 'em,' in our analysis," he said.

Pillsbury also has offices in Silicon Valley, San Diego, Tokyo and Hong Kong -- all hot spots for IP practice, Sweigart said.

The smaller firms, however, insist they offer advantages the big firms don't.

Arthur Wineburg, a partner in the D.C. office of New York's Pennie & Edmonds, a firm of about 135 IP specialists, 20 in D.C., asserts that his firm can offer more depth of scientific expertise. "It's one thing to have a {lawyer with a} degree in engineering or chemistry, but we have people who have had experience in each of the areas of chemistry or electronics," he said.

Bigger isn't always better, Wineburg asserts, and corporations will "still look at the merits of various firms" when seeking representation.

"Sure we are nervous, but we figure we can hold our own," said Becker, whose firm has 40 lawyers. Legal work, such as filing patents and trying smaller patent cases, is better suited to small firms, with their lower fees and down-home atmosphere, he said.

Becker also insists the big firms "hire the wrong people because of their culture. They are looking for these hoity-toity kids" from Ivy League law schools, who might have great credentials but lack the "street sense" and experience acquired by patent attorneys who worked as engineers or scientists and went to law school at night.

There is one thing on which most of the experts agree: This legal specialty has legs.

"Patents . . . have a limited lifespan and have to be renewed periodically," said Ward Bower, an Altman Weil Pensa consultant. "And with the global marketplace, these things have to be filed all over the world." On the Move

Ira H. Raphaelson, who during the Bush administration headed the Justice Department's prosecutions of savings and loans, left D.C.'s Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge last week for the D.C. office of O'Melveny & Myers. He will specialize in white-collar defense and corporate compliance. Football Verdict In

The Lawyers League finished its touch football season last week with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights winning the championship, edging Hogan & Hartson 12-6 in overtime. "A heartbreaker," sighed Hogan captain Michael McCarthy, who left the firm (for unrelated reasons) to join MCI Communications Corp. Bernard Grimm, the winner's co-captain, thinks football is the solution to the lawyer incivility problem. "This," he said, "is a place for lawyers to be uncivilized and it is permissible."