Michelangelo saw the Pieta trapped inside a block of marble and chiseled away layers of stone to set it free. Linda Harrington saw big bucks stuck within the legal system and carved out her own highly-lucrative business.

"Michelangelo had a vision of the sculpture within the stone," says the 37-year-old paralegal, one of an estimated 300,000 in the rapidly-growing field. "I had a vision of the business possibilities in contracting my services to attorneys."

Harrington's work of art is Probate Services, Inc., a $100,000-a-year San Francisco firm that provides paralegal services ($25 per hour) to attorneys. She launched the business 10 years ago -- with a degree in political science and several years' experience assisting attorneys -- and is now one of the highest-paid (if not the highest paid) paralegals in the country.

Independent contracting is one of the newest options available to practitioners of the "phenominally-expanding" occupation, said William R. Fry, executive director of the National Paralegal Institute (NPI), a sponsor of last week's first national conference for paralegals, advocates, lawyers and educators at Georgetown University.

"When the Office of Economic Opportunity convened a conference on the emerging use of paralegals in 1970, they identified one college training them. Now 127 community colleges offer a paralegal degree or certificate program. [The American Bar Association has identified 300 training programs.] Today virtually every major law firm employes paralegals -- some as many as 50."

The majority of paralegals are women, noted Ed Villmoare of the National Paralegal Institute of California.

"Most ten to specialize," he said, "according to a particular area of expertise. They go by a wide variety of titles and have a broad range of functions. They are consumer advocates, investigators, affirmative-action officers, ombudsmen, lobbyists, legislative advocates, researchers, evidence gathers, mediators.

"Many work in the public sector for non-profit groups concerned with the environment, community mental health, labor unions and the rights of senior citizens and minority groups.

"In the private sector they are booking agents for entertainers, CPAs who work with tax law, insurance adjustors, bank employes or -- in more traditional roles -- work for corporations and law firms."

To illustrate the diversity of the field, a panel of eight paralegals outlined their background, training and job requirements to conference participants. Among them:

Elma Griesel, 39, executive director of the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, monitors legislation and serves as a consumer advocate for nursing-home clients. She has a bachelor's degree in sociology, a masters in public health and several years' experience working with seniors' rights groups. She earns $32,000 a year.

Faruq Muhammad, 31, an instructor at Antioch School of Law's Paralegal Institute. He bacame interested in the law while serving time in a Mississippi prison, trained as a paralegal and works with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. He earns $15,000 a year.

Carol Persons, 44, who took several graduate law courses and received on-the-job-training in immigration law with a Philadelphia firm. Her work is "similar to the attorneys', except I can't represnt a client at an immigration or deportation hearing." Her salary is "in the $30,000 range," and she is considering "going free-lance."

Del Rayson, 63, a minister for 30 years who enrolled in George Washington University's paralegal training program. He is now "helping the poor and elderly cope with a variey of problems" as director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, at the American Association of Retired Persons where he earns $16,000.

Meg Shields Duke, 27, a legal assistant in the White House Counsel's Institute for Paralegal Training, she has worked in private law firms and on the Reagan-Bush committee. She earns between "$20,000 and $25,000."

Laura Brown, 29, who started as a secretary at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, attended the University of Maryland's Paralegal program and returned to the agency as a legal assistant. She earns nearly $20,000 and hopes to attend law school this fall.

While opportunities for paralegals in the public sector "may suffer from the whole reduction in government jobs," noted NPI's Fry, "the career prospects for paralegals in general are excellent."

The greatest number of jobs are with law firms, he said, "and they're flourishing because paralegals do a lot of the work that young lawyers used to do."

While a certificate from a paralegal training program (most of which run about one year) can be a helpful credential when applying for a job, "in most cases," said Fry, "the relevant training happens on the job.

"Law firms up to now have been generally willing to hire a person without paralegal training if they appear capable and competent. One measure of this is getting good grades in college."

The biggest problem for paralegals, he said, "is the lack of clear and dramatic career advancement. You've got a lot of very bright, very ambitious people who find it difficult to work at a firm where they can't become a partner."

Although partnerships for paralegals may be a trend of the future, many for now are earning higher salaries by moving into administrative roles at law firms or by starting their own free-lance businesses.

Attorneys, it seems, have a love-hate relationship with paralegals. While Fry contends that "lawyers love paralegals because they make money for them," the affection is not, apparently, unanimous.

"Some lawyers are terrified of the paralegal movement," noted attorney Thomas Ehrlich, who served as president of the Legal Services Corporation when it was established by Congress in 1974 to provide legal services to the poor.

"They see it -- not without justification -- as a way in which legal services may be increasingly provided more effectively and efficiently and at lower costs than by the legal profession.

"Lawyer groups have sought to bring all paralegal programs under the regulatory wing of the American Bar Association (ABA) as a way to ensure that the lawyers' guild maintains its monopoly control."

"I don't think control is the issue," said Paul Shapiro, incoming chairman of the ABA's committee on legal assistants. "Since the ABA sets standards for the legal profession, naturally they want to be involved in something that affects the delivery of legal services to the public.

"The official stance of the ABA is encouragement. They have programs to teach lawyers how to use paralegals effectively, and see them as economically advantageous for lawyers and for the public."

Ehrlich said he has "confidence that the paralegal movement will prevail -- not to vanquish the legal profession, but rather to work with it as a partner in providing legal services."

(One speaker told of a New York firm that provides economical legal services by employing two full-time attorneys, two part-time attorneys and 28 paralegals.)

The paralegal movement "will grow and prosper," Erlich predicted, for several reasons, including the increasing complexity and pervasiveness of the law, the greater demand for legal services, the growing use of mediation and arbitration and need for "cost-efficient mass devivery systems."

"By the end of the century, it seems to me likely that the numbers of paralegals . . . will exceed the numbers of lawyers. Economic pressures require the delegation of tasks more effectively and effiently than all-purpose lawyers. Paralegals are those persons."