The consummate Washington insider is moving to Wall Street.

Vernon E. Jordan Jr.--confidante to President Clinton, ubiquitous corporate board director and longtime Washington lawyer and power broker--said yesterday that he will join the investment banking world on Jan. 1 as a senior managing partner with the Wall Street firm of Lazard Freres.

At the same time, Jordan will step down as a partner at the Washington law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, where he has worked since 1982. He will remain a lawyer there on an "of counsel" basis, keeping an office, a secretary and a hand in some of the firm's business, he and Akin Gump attorneys said.

Jordan said he will continue to live in Washington, though he will spend much of his workweek in New York. While he will retain ties to Akin Gump, his first allegiance will be to his new career at Lazard Freres, he said.

"This is a very exciting opportunity," Jordan said. "But it's also very sad to leave a place that's been so good to me."

Jordan, 64, described the decision to switch his career focus as one that follows naturally from his experience giving legal advice to corporate clients and sitting as a director on corporate boards since 1972. He serves on 10 boards, including those of American Express Co., Dow Jones & Co. and Sara Lee Corp.

How many of those directorships he will keep remains to be seen, he said.

Why does Lazard, a privately owned firm that is known as one of the top investment banking firms, want Jordan?

"He's a great personality. He knows a lot of people. It's the exactly the type of people we need in investment banking," said Lazard chairman and chief executive Michel David-Weill. "He has a sense of strategy. And nothing is more precious in our business."

It's unlikely Jordan will be involved in the nuts and bolts of financial deals, but would rather serve as someone with good people skills who works with senior-level managers and can build important relationships, Wall Street officials said. Wall Street executives outside Lazard, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, said that for Jordon, a big part of the lure is money.

"Why does a guy like that do it?" said one Wall Street insider. "He wants to go from making big money to making bigger money. Investment bankers make more than lawyers."

Jordan can expect to make $4 million a year at Lazard, sources said.

"Whoever gave you that number doesn't know what he's talking about," said Jordan, who declined to comment on his pay.

"Vernon made the decision that he wants to expand the direction of his career," said Robert Strauss, an Akin Grump partner and friend of Jordan's. "We wish him Godspeed. We expect him to remain a significant person in our professional and personal life."

CAPTION: Vernon Jordan is taking his people skills to Wall Street.