IN THIS WORLD, there are two kinds of people," says the nameless gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood in one of Sergio Leone's larger-than-life western films: "Those with loaded guns, and those who dig." The observation has always seemed appropriate to the practice of law, a colloquial restatement of the time-honored distinction between barrister and solicitor. Lawyers who actually go to court -- litigators in modern parlance -- are the exception rather than the rule in a time when entire legal careers may be spent digging in such murky soil as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. And lawyers who only go to court are a breed increasingly as rare as the hired guns with whom they are often compared. In Penance for Jerry Kennedy, George V. Higgins offers the fictional equivalent of an endangered species designation for that most courtroom-oriented of litigators, the criminal defense lawyer.

When first we met Jeremiah Kennedy, in the 1980 novel Kennedy for the Defense, he was a paragon of criminal trial lawyers, possessed of a growing stable of lucrative (if often oddball) clients and a picture-perfect wife and daughter. At once "classy" and "sleazy," Kennedy not only defended his cases expertly but also solved crimes to boot, literally confirming his role as a gunslinger by strapping on a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson in the novel's final pages. One sensed that an upmarket detective series was in the offing from Higgins, a Boston attorney whose novels, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Cogan's Trade, have consistently ranked among the very best in modern crime fiction.

Penance for Jerry Kennedy is anything but the expected sequel. Five years and innumerable cases older, Jerry Kennedy is fast approaching burn-out, suffering interminably for the sins of his trade. He views his caseload with bored cynicism:

"My practice is repetitive, after twenty years. Half of what it repeats, from my clients' mouths and mine, can be reduced to those two short words: 'Big money, Mister Kennedy, he promised me big money.' The other half, or roughly that, is people who have created their own troubles with some kind of intoxicants, either because they did not get their big money or because they in fact did . . . . For me, in my middle age, child molesters and wife-beaters are a welcome change, people who did evil things because of warped passions that did not involve money. And, of course, I meet them all because I'm out for their money.

"I try to avoid those facts or thinking about them too much."

HE IS OVERWEIGHT and drinking heavily, haunted by his unsuccessful defense of a good friend, an accountant indicted for income tax fraud after refuing to finger a known mafioso. IRS agents -- the archetype of "those who dig" -- turn next to Kennedy's own tax returns. His participation in a petition to block the promotion of an incompetent judge renders him the whipping boy of a crusading television reporter. He has made a shambles of his family life, railing at both his wife's career amibitions and his daughter's sexual awakening. And above everything looms the specter of an older, broken-down trial lawyer and former mentor of sorts, Frank Macdonald, whose downfall offers increasingly uncomfortable parallels.

Jerry Kennedy's plight stems in part from the well-worn maxim that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client; but the heart of the matter is that the hired gun inevitably has come to mirror the people for whom he works:

"This is a tough business, the one I am in. We are always seeing people, that are in deep trouble. People at their worst, you know? That is when we see them. Happy people, working people, people with good lives, they don't get in trouble and we very seldom see them. So we get used to the hard stuff, and we sometimes mimic it. Not intentional, I guess, but that's the way it is."

But, as Higgins capably reminds us, the "hard stuff" of criminal justice extends beyond the fact that defense lawyering is almost always "based on the safe assurance that our clients did it." Higgins specifically targets the ironies of a system of justice practicing more and more often for the clouded eye of the television camera: the "reformed burglar" offering inane talk-show advice on matters of personal security ("Dead bolts are very safe . . . but only if you throw them. You got dead bolts and they're not on, they're no good at all"); the ambitious judge, vengefully taking his case to the higher court of television when denied promotion; the erstwhile legal superstar whose career, built upon media coverage, ends in a twisted reclusion worthy of Howard Hughes. Throughout, carefully crafted cameo performers -- notably, a deranged wife-beating client and an earnest yuppie prosecutor -- vividly distill the often nightmarish quality of daily trial practice.

"I'm a trial lawyer," Jerry Kennedy insists. "That's all I am. . ." Penance for Jerry Kennedy is a novel about a dying breed -- lawyers who think on their feet rather than from behind desktop computer terminals and who fight with reasoned words instead of endless streams of documents. Not surprisingly, its best moments come when Kennedy is arguing his case, in the courtroom or, as he must, on television. Higgins' unerring sense of the colloquial, always his strength, is somewhat overexercised here; his characters simply will not stop talking, and endless conversational digressions occasionally frustrate both the story and the reader. But Jerry Kennedy is unstoppable, the kind of fictional laywer one meets all too rarely -- one whose life and work are made real.