When Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, one of the honorees at a reception last night, walked into the room, she immediately began teasing another honoree about her imminent marriage. "Well, at least, I haven't learned about this after the fact," she said, joking with Marialice Williams. In turn, Williams reminisced about how Johnson had taught her at Taft junior high. "She made Shakespeare and 'The Rim of the Ancient Mariner' come alive. I still try to read two books a week because of her," said Williams.

The opportunity for such backslapping and congratulations was clearly one of the reasons the women's division of the predominantly black National Bar Association got together to honor five women attorneys last night. Not stated was a frank realization that the achievements of these women were still the exception in the legal and government worlds and, at times, needed to be loudly protected. This was especially the case for Johnson, who recently became the first black woman nominated and confirmed to serve on the U.S. District Court.

After her nomination to the federal bench, Johnson's supporters rallied to confront negative opinions about her philosophy, experiences and temperament. Johnson, 47, a former Justice Department attorney and D.C. assistant corporation counsel who presently serves on the D.C. Superior Court, has a reputation for both compassionate concern and harsh insensitivity. Around the court she is known as one who "can hit the long ball," giving long terms for violent offenses.

"The criticism was totally unwarranted. It didn't have anything to do with her competency," said Arthur Burnett, a federal court magistrate. "I have experienced nothing but patience and sensitivity before her," said attorney Harley Daniels. "In an extremely difficult condominium conversion case, she worked 40-50 hours for the settlement. That was certainly the other side of insensitivity." When Judge Gladys Kessler was nominated to Superior Court three years ago, she sought out Johnson. "She spent a long time with me. She let me sit with her on the bench. She went out of her way to help me," said Kessler.

When asked about her battle for the judgeship, Johnson replied quickly, "I was totally isolated from that. All I know is I had no difficulty getting confirmed." Privately, a few people at the reception in the Russell Senate Office Building said that Johnson is all-business and a loner, but, as one said, "she has everything needed upstairs."

Sharing the spotlight with Johnson were Karen Hastie Williams, the federal procurement policy administrator at the Office of Management and Budget; Allie Latimer, the general counsel of the General Services Administration; Marialice Williams, the deputy director of the Civil Rights office of OMB; and Dana Brewington Stebbins, the special assistant to the associate administrator of the Small Business Administration.

Of the 500,000 lawyers in the United States, black lawyers account for nearly 12,000. Of those, 2,500 are women. "It is still a struggle for the black woman lawyer, who faces sexism and racial bias. These women are true role models," said J. Clay Smith, a commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.