Looking to hire a lawyer? Don't fool around. Get someone sharp, hard-driving and maybe even a little ruthless. Watch a few performances in court.

You can start at the National Capital YMCA, where most days, at noon and early evening, some of Washington's solicitors show their stuff on a basketball court.

Not that these hoopsters have passed the bar. A rent-a -car manager, a pastry chef and two lay ministers from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church are among the Y's basketball regulars.

"I would say," cautions diehard James Eastman, himself a lawyer, "that only two-thirds of us are lawyers."

For some reason, however, everyone here is male.

"There was one woman who used to show up, and she wasn't bad," recalls Michael Hays, a 32-year-old assistant U.S. attorney with a shaggy mane, "but I never knew who she was . . . I guess she's disappeared."

No one said it was supposed to be pretty. When the lawyer's friend, the billable hour, yields to the basketball hour, the most eloquent argument can come to naught. More impressive, sometimes, is a deftly thrown elbow.

"It happened a week ago Monday," says Robert Weinberg, a 30-year-old lawyer with a bloodshot left eye. "He thought I was pushing him around, or at least that's what he claimed. It swelled up for a while, I lost some of the peripheral vision, but I was only out for a couple of days. He never did apologize."

"My front teeth are all chipped from playing basketball," complains lawyer Robert vom Eigen, 36, as he runs a bleeding index finger, a recent wound, along the objects under discussion. "People lose their tempers, occasionally, but that's only when the system breaks down."

The Rev. Mike Leone, of the Unification Church, swears, "I've seen two guys carried out of here on stretchers in just the last few months."

But non-lawyer Bill Gavin, the rent-a-car employee, pooh-poohs such talk.

"I'm from Pittsburgh," he says, "and in Pittsburgh they get physical. Here I'd say they're laid back. Sure, I've seen some fights. But in Pittsburgh, it was almost a fight a night. Now that's what I call physical."

From their downtown offices, the barristers head for 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, from which intersection the Y juts skyward like a great red rock. Within, they exchange muted grays for Day-Glo socks, Gucci loafers for Converse sneakers. The scuttlebutt is sotto voce .

"Why is it so quiet here today?" one chap wonders the evening after the Republican landslide. "Because," his neighbor replies, dropping one shoe, then the other, "everybody's out looking for a job."

Stretch bandages are wrapped around knees, and head bands are fitted to brows. There's a smell of ointments and sweat as the lawyers straggle out of the locker room. It's the smell, perhaps, of impending battle.

"You play to win," international lawyer Eugene Massey, 38, explains "because, of course, everybody plays to win."

The battle at hand is a zealous form of pickup basketball, in which four-man teams (enough people to cry foul an average of twice a minute) grapple with each other to make 12 baskets before it's time to go back to the office. The game is conducted on the polished pine of the Y's fifth-floor gym, to the accompanying rumbles -- and, sometimes rock'n'roll -- of the jogging track overhead.

The temperature, as Y director Marvin Reinke proudly notes, is always a "climatically controlled" 74 degrees Fahrenheit. But the play is often hot.

It builds slowly at first, with a few of the shock troupes lazily shooting baskets as other stretch their limbs in the corner. Then someone suggests a friendly game of two on two. Before long it's a quorum. Then it's all thumps and slam-dunks, sneakers skirting the floor in crescendo of squeaks. Finally the cursing starts -- proof positive that things are well under way.

"Cut that s... out!" admonished Reginald Holt, a 42-year-old civil lawyer with flecks of gray in his hair, to a fellow who thwacked him the other night on drive to the basket. The opponent, who looked to be an ex-football player, more than matched Holt's 5-foot-10-inch, 165 pound stature. "You just stop it, man," Holt persisted. "I won't be intimidated."

You might guess, considering the players, that basketball at the Y would spark a full-court press of litigation. But Reinke says no.

"We've never had any trouble," he says. "After all, we're dealing primarily here with pretty responsible adults." And, he adds, the Y likes to keep scuffles at a free throw's length. "It's not our interest to be judge or jury. If there's quite a dispute, we let the members settle it."

For the hoopsters-lawyers, the game's good exercise as well as (they attest) an escape from the rat race. But in a strange way, it may also be a mirror-image of workaday Washington.

"You certainly forget the pressures of the day," says 28-year-old Mark Johnson, a lawyer and tax consultant. "The only pressure you really think is the pressure out there on the court. Because if you lose just once, you might be out of it for good."

The house rules, posted on a far wall, put it another way -- which only a lawyer, perhaps, could fully appreciate:

"The first (4) players will make up the next team to play. Players who have not played in a game are to play before players who have played on a team THAT HAS LOST, PLAY A SECOND TIME."

Translation: to keep playing, you've got to keep winning -- something like being a junior partner in a high-powered law firm. So the games are often marked by noisy desperation. These are busy people, whose minutes are money.

"Come on, let's go, let's play," onlookers, anxious for court-time, are wont to scream from the sidelines.

Not Calvin Steimmetz, though.

Steimmetz, 28, recently opened a private practice. He's a skillful player, but he likes the sidelines fine.

"I get a lot of business here," he reports, sitting cross-legged on a rubber mat against the wall. "Most of these guys are corporate lawyers or they work for one of the federal agencies, so if they hear of anything, some of them will throw it my way. It's mostly car accidents, divorces, things like that, but it pays the bills.

"So my membership here," he adds, grinning broadly, "is a legitimate tax deduction."