"If people had said the right things I might have gone into law school," says John Trevithick, a retired State Department official. "But it didn't happen. I was in political science and never wished for law school."

About three years ago, a year before he retired, he heard of Paralegal Training for Seniors at George Washington University. At 59, with 31 years in government behind him, he wasn't sure what he was going to do with the free time that yawned before him.

"All I knew was that it would have to be something entirely different."

Already, he had experimented with a night class in legal research and writing at GW law school and found he liked it. So when he left State he enrolled in the paralegal course. He did so well he wound up valedictorian for the class of 15 that graduated this spring.

The 7-year-old program, the first in this country and still almost unique, is run by the National Law Center at GW and is open to people 55 and up with at least a high school diploma. A certain amount of screening is necessary, for the courses are on the graduate level. So each applicant is interviewed by the staff and given a short writing assignment. Anyone with a law degree is not admitted.

That still leaves a good deal of leeway. Trevithick has a BA and MA from the University of Colorado, did all his doctoral work (except the thesis) at Harvard. One of his classmates is a dentist who wants to phase out his regular career. There's a vice admiral, some other retiring military people, a foreign service wife, an ex-CIA agent.

But there are also people who barely finished high school. There are housewives. There is a hairdresser from Anacostia who raised her five children by herself and applied three times before the program, unable to raise the financial aid she needed, managed to include her somehow.

"We've lost our federal grant for student aid," said Mary Rosen, a lawyer who directs the program. "We ran a parallel class, Service Providers Legal Training, for people of any age who work with the elderly. These were mostly social workers who couldn't afford the $1,800 tuition. With the grant, they came in free, and it was a very important part of the scene: these working people rubbing shoulders with the former generals and white-collar officials."

In any case, classes will resume Sept. 8. So far 17 students are returning. Usually about 50 attend the courses, including some who merely audit and don't work for the certificate. A full-time student puts in two days a week.

"Last year we had 43 in our basic first course, legal research and writing, which is an intensive introduction to the legal system," said Rosen.

Other courses cover administrative law, civil procedure, bankruptcy and financial counseling, family law, housing, health care and nursing care, taxes, and estate planning. The students are required to intern with a public or private agency that provides legal services to the elderly: Neighborhood Legal Services, Legal Aid and so on.

Trevithick's clinical work, for instance, was with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, with which he hopes to continue next fall. Like many another, while he is delighted to do volunteer work, he would love a real part-time job, perhaps with a local law firm, helping the elderly and the poor of all ages.

Legal needs for older people range from proving eligibility for food stamps or other aid, problems with income tax, landlords, medical programs and any number of areas involving bureaucratic complexities. Paralegals can't give legal advice, or appear in court on behalf of a client (with some exceptions), or sign legal documents. But they can prepare a simple will under supervision of an attorney, write memoranda, handle certain administrative chores. In general, they may help the layman understand what the law says, but may not interpret it.

The paralegal program is the brainchild of Prof. Donald P. Rothschild, co-director of GW's Institute of Law and Aging, who took his suggestion in 1975 to Arthur S. Flemming, then chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Flemming, long active in the affairs of the aging, got the money to start things rolling.

"I can't tell you what a great thing this has been for me," said Trevithick (who is related to the early 19th-century English steam pioneer). "There are no lawyers in my family, my three grown sons are in other fields. But if I were 10 years younger, I just might go on to law school at this point . . ."