FriendSwap, the matchmaking party devoted to the young and powerful of Washington, is a singles scene that favors suit jackets over bare shoulders and business cards over lipsticked napkins. This is as it should be, really -- mature, methodical dating for mature, methodical people. They are overachievers, 80 percent of whom have graduate degrees, the sort of people who, asked to describe themselves, offer their Myers-Briggs personality types.

The group was founded in 2002 by a Harvard lawyer, and before this year was called Harvard Hotties FriendSwap. When the organizers throw their yearly party, smart young lawyers walk in and discover themselves surrounded by smart young lawyers. This is generally regarded as a good thing. One smart young lawyer praised a FriendSwap party as "a room full of people who were pretty much like me."

When 500 FriendSwap members get together one Wednesday night in March at Maxim Restaurant near the White House, the cumulative effect is less that of a singles scene and more of a convention at the Omni Shoreham. Most people are in their work clothes. The men don't loosen their ties. The women sport a startling dearth of cleavage. Sex appeal is buttoned down, pinned back and impaled on dainty pearl earrings. There are few lustful glances, unless you count the folks staring intently at each other's chests, trying to read the name tags. This is dating for people whose primary skill is networking. It is the inverse of a meat market like Lulu's Club Mardi Gras on M Street NW, which for tightness of jeans and divulgence of midriffs has few rivals.

If you can push through the well-behaved crowd, abundant -- perhaps slightly more than the general population -- with men of below-average height, you'll find a remarkable fellow named Dan Prieto. He has designed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the 15 women who've been selected for him as possible love matches. The spreadsheet lists the women's jobs, hobbies and physical characteristics, and ranks them on a scale he devised of 1 to 3. Prieto, 35, uses it as a crib sheet for his conversations tonight with the women, whom he has scheduled at regular intervals.

"I made appointments every half-hour," says Prieto, who works on Capitol Hill. The idea for the spreadsheet came naturally to him, he says, because he used to be an investment banker.

The principles of finance, it seems, are not so different from the principles of dating.

If the attendees seem organized, consider the organizers, who do this entirely for fun and for free. Founder Heather Dawn Thompson and her friend Eric Columbus, both 32, have been planning this event for months. They've been working with a Web site, an online database designed by a friend of Thompson's, and a team of about 15 organizers who've given up the better part of a month to matchmaking the 550 singles of FriendSwap.

Each single gets assigned anywhere from one to 15 love matches or "swaps," whom they are encouraged to e-mail and then meet at the party, which will last around four hours.

This matchmaking is made easier by profiles all the singles have filled out, in which they are asked to specify their political affiliation from among eight options that parse the political spectrum. The options differentiate between "very conservative," "conservative" and "right of center," offering "fiscally conservative/socially liberal" for the moderates and so on, all the way to "very liberal."

At Maxim, as the clock ticks closer to the 6:30 p.m. opening, all of the organizers put on purple or red fedoras with leopard-print bands that they call "pimp hats," to distinguish them from the singles. Tables are set up by the door to process attendees alphabetically by last name. Thompson gives last-minute directions to the volunteers running the door. Columbus stands nearby, his face pinched with anticipation. He is keeping a dime in his shoe for good luck. All evening, while people drink wine and flirt, Columbus will roam officiously through the crowd, carrying a clipboard, combing a sheaf of paper for names. He looks like a high school administrator, except for the pimp hat.

"If I'm not nervous, there's something wrong," Columbus says in a stout voice, the kind a coach uses before a big game.

A Familiar Setting

For many people, a FriendSwap party is like a reunion. Singles arrive with friends, or they arrive and see people they know. Maybe they know each other from law school or from work. Sometimes they find they're being swapped with someone they already know.

"D.C. is a small town," says Erin Mahan, a single to whom this happens, but it's not so much smallness as selectiveness that's being showcased here. Even when a single doesn't know her swap, she probably knows someone similar to that swap, which is to say similar to herself. The insularity of FriendSwap comes from the fact that it's invite-only. Via e-mail, the organizers invite their friends and participants from the year before, telling them to forward the e-mail to any other people for whom they can "personally vouch."

"Even if you don't wind up hitting it off with the person, you're still meeting someone with a similar background," says Jon Edgar, 29, a lawyer, who was matched with another lawyer, Allison Buchko, 27, through FriendSwap 2002. They were given each other's e-mail addresses by the FriendSwap organizers, and when Buchko couldn't make it to the big matchmaking party, she invited Edgar along on a triple date, made up -- naturally -- of six lawyers. Edgar and Buchko discovered they have similar jobs, similar values, and they both love animals. Now they're engaged.

They're one of at least three couples that have become engaged through FriendSwap. Another couple -- Kate and Gordon Todd -- were married earlier this month. They're also lawyers. Kate used to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, while Gordon works for the Justice Department. Their wedding was announced in the New York Times.

Even those who don't meet Mr. or Ms. Right can come away from a FriendSwap party with a renewed appreciation for the myriad ways in which it's possible to be a lawyer. At Maxim, there are government lawyers and corporate lawyers, law clerks and lawyers-to-be. Fully 30 percent of FriendSwap is made up of lawyers. Of course, there are also politicians -- two FriendSwap singles have run for Congress -- as well as people who work in politics, some of whom happen to be lawyers. There are government wonks and nonprofit people. There are PR folks and journalists, a number of whom spend their professional lives talking to politicians or lawyers.

Which is not to say that FriendSwap is homogeneous. After all, some of the singles here got their law degrees at Harvard, while others got them at the University of Virginia, and still others at George Washington University. Plus, there are four gay men. Three of them are lawyers.

The Voice of Experience

As at every singles scene that has ever existed, the women at FriendSwap are cooler than the men. They know how to bluff. Thus, if there are women alone at FriendSwap, you don't notice them being alone. They stride purposefully. The men, meanwhile, tend to amble slowly, playing with their straws and trying to look natural, which is a dead giveaway. Worst of all are the guys who stand alone, looking into the middle distance, spots of conspicuous motionlessness in the moving crowd.

"Look at that guy," says Aaron Tax, 28, observing one of his fellow men. "He's like looking, looking, intently looking, but for no one."

Tax went to law school at George Washington and now works as a fellow in employment policy for the Department of the Army. He has a slight build, lively hazel eyes and a self-effacing sense of humor. Tax has five swaps, only three of whom are here tonight, and he's relieved to talk to a reporter because it keeps him from looking as though he's alone.

"You have to come with a wingman, and I didn't," he says. He surveys the crowd and sees another solitary man. "He's doing the let's-be-occupied-with-my-empty-cup. I've done that myself."

Tax is friends with an attractive redhead who, for the second year in a row, has received an inordinate number of swaps. This year she has nine. Last year she had 13, and was forced to use an I-have-to-go-the-bathroom ruse to extricate herself from bad conversations. Sadly, few of Tax's conversations tonight will last long enough even to hear such an excuse.

Tax did FriendSwap last year with no luck, and came back again, the way a man keeps buying lottery tickets no matter how slim his hopes. After arriving tonight, he announces it "kind of intimidating" and "horrible," and a few minutes later observes, "She's cute." This event is an investment, like the singles-oriented scenes Tax frequents at the D.C. Jewish Community Center and, the online Jewish dating service. Each moment spent milling around a room with strangers brings him that much closer, he hopes, toward finding the right girl. Always there is a sense that that might be her, right over there. Sometimes, much as he hates singles scenes, he has trouble leaving.

"It's like gambling," he says at one point.

Abba sings "Dancing Queen." There's a dance floor, but nobody is dancing.

Making Connections

FriendSwap is not a formal organization. There are no dues, and nobody makes any money. The group is simply a bigger, more technologically complex version of a matchmaking obsession that both Heather Thompson and Eric Columbus pursued separately for years.

Thompson, who recently left her job as an associate at Patton Boggs to work for the Democratic Senate leadership, used to throw frequent dinner parties. She'd invite people she thought would make good matches, seat them next to each other without telling them why, and observe. She says two engagements resulted.

Columbus, a former Hill staffer and now an associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering, used to carry a small notebook in his pocket for the purpose of matchmaking. He'd divide a page into a grid, with the columns for male or female, and the rows for whether they lived in D.C. or New York. (Being from Manhattan, Columbus knew people in both cities.) Each time he met a single person he thought shouldn't be single anymore, he'd write his or her name down, then try to match the person with someone else in the grid. He says one of the couples he set up this way recently got engaged.

Some time after Thompson founded FriendSwap, she and Columbus -- who knew each other from Harvard Law -- had dinner. The started talking about their mutual passion.

"We admired each other's work," Columbus says.

He showed her his grid. Thompson was impressed. She invited him to help her run FriendSwap, using the online database. For Columbus, it was a revelation, a seismic change on the order of the automobile replacing the buggy. He jumped wholeheartedly into 21st-century matchmaking, which he calls the "techno-yenta" approach. It was, he says, "like Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 going electric for the first time."

Now, he, Thompson and the other organizers spend nearly a month before the FriendSwap party swapping their friends together. They read every profile in the database, they memorize the profiles of the 50 or 100 people they've been assigned to represent, and then they get together on weekends with laptops and sheafs of paper and discuss who goes with whom.

It is an imperfect science. At various times, roommates and even exes have been inadvertently matched with each other. There are also happy accidents -- couples who come about even though they weren't swapped.

It's hard for Columbus and Thompson to say exactly why they matchmake. After all, they're not benefiting from it. On ethical grounds, they've excluded themselves from the pool of FriendSwap singles. (Thompson is dating someone right now; Columbus is not.) In a sense, they've stepped into the void left by modern parents and fragmented communities, a culture in which unattached people are left to fend for themselves in the wilds of bars and dance clubs. Who else will do it?

"In the Jewish tradition, if you arrange three matches, you're guaranteed a share in the world to come," Columbus says. "I'm not sure if I believe that, but it's best to err on the safe side."

Thompson puts it in unsentimental terms. "The marginal cost to us . . . is much less than the marginal benefit to everyone else," she says.

Perhaps the "why" is hard to answer because matchmaking is an evolutionary imperative, the way a species ensures its own survival. Why do mothers suckle their infants? Because they must. Certainly a subset of Washington lawyers has now dodged the threat of extinction.

Who Needs the Swap?

Midway through the evening, through a fog of dark suits the sun appears. His name is Step Armah, and he has utter, golden confidence and a chest as wide as a side of the Pentagon. Armah, a consultant, cuts a swath across the crowded floor, the top of his chest bare and garnished by a winking medallion of Egyptian hieroglyphs. He is smart, he is funny and he is fond of giving attractive women long, liquid stares.

Right now, Armah, 38, is standing by the bar. He has seven swaps to meet tonight, but he's been having better luck with the women who aren't on his list.

"If you ask a guy, 'Which would you rather have -- a brilliant woman or a smoking hot mama . . .' " He trails off and grins.

Then he sees Jennifer Roberts. She is 26, executive director of the nonprofit Women Business Leaders Foundation, based in Foggy Bottom. (She's also, it must be said, an aspiring lawyer.) She is lean in her dark pantsuit, with captivating brown eyes and shiny brown hair that tumbles down her back. She notices Armah, too, and when they start talking she tells him she is running late to meet one of her swaps.

"I saw him," Armah says, heat radiating from his wide smile. "You aren't missing anything."

Soon, Armah and Roberts are deep in conversation, her swap seemingly forgotten.

After a few minutes, a young man interrupts. He is another of Roberts's swaps. He has khakis and dimples, and long bangs that beg for a trim. A moment of awkwardness ensues. Armah is quiet, wondering if he should take off. Roberts makes a joke and winks at Armah. He decides to stick around.

After 15 minutes, Roberts ends the three-way stalemate by announcing she has to go to the bathroom. This is a bluff and it works. The dimpled guy moves on, leaving Roberts free to lean over the bar and scribble her e-mail address on a napkin for Armah.

As it turns out, Armah meets only three of his swaps at the party. No matter, he goes home with the napkin, plus the phone numbers of four other women.

By 11:15, most everyone has cleared out, and Latin pop is playing. On the dance floor, people are no longer networking -- they are dancing. It is something unlawyerly, something beautiful.

At Maxim, where 500 singles turned out, Manolo Figallo-Monge swaps phone numbers with Lysandra Lopez.Eric Columbus and Heather Dawn Thompson, both longtime matchmakers, spent months planning the annual party.Erin Mahan meets Philip Zanga in one of the evening's "swaps." Each single is set up by the party's organizers with one to 15 swaps.At FriendSwap, says a former participant, "even if you don't wind up hitting it off with the person, you're still meeting someone with a similar background." The bar at Maxim gathers, from left, Darren Harp, Brett Gardner, Trish Moynihan, Shaila Djurovich and Charlie Brown.Dan Prieto, above, carries a spreadsheet to keep track of his busy schedule of "swaps," while, at left, Jonathan Cowan chats with, from left, Anna Greenberg, Cathy St. Denis and Parker Stanzione.Above, Step Armah, center, and Charley Sabatier chat with Jennifer Roberts, and at right, Alison Warner and Perham Gorji get to know each other.