Washinton areas residents now may "shop" for lawyers through a unique legal register being compiled here that provides detailed information about attorneys, their background, their practice and often, their fees.

The voluntary listing approved by the District of Columbia Bar and located in its headquarters at 1426 H St. NW. is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. It already lists more than 400 lawyers, and is expected to contain information about up to 1,000 lawyers in a couple of months.

It is indexed by the field in which an attorney practices, the languages in which he is fluent and the geographical area in which his office is located. Attorneys who already are listed range from individual practioners to members of some of the city's largest and most prestigious law firms.

Fewer than half of those listed give some information about the rates they charge. Many of those who provide fee information appear to be young attorneys, individual practitioners or members of small firms. Members of most large firms provide no fee information.

The listing of fees comes at a time when legal groups across the nation are debating the ethical question of advertising by lawyers and is seen as a step toward that goal by many who support it.

The fees listed by attorneys so far range from $20 an hour to $125 an hour. The preparation of a will can range from $35 to $350, depending on the attorney and the complexity of the will, according to flat fees listed by the attorneys.

Many lawyers who list their fees say they charge nothing for an initial visit. Others say they charge their full hourly rate from the start.

According to the index provided with the listing, attorneys specialize in areas ranging from aviation to immigration, criminal law to family law, and military law to women's rights. By far the most say they are in general practice, with the next largest group saying they practice "administrative law" - an area involving ligation before regulatory and administrative agencies of the government.

The index also lists 21 languages in which various attorneys say they are fluent. The languages include Czech, Swedish, Japanese and Yiddish.

Attorneys must adhere to the fees they list, according to S. White Rhyne Jr., chairman of the lawyer referal services commitee that set up the listing procedure.

Rhyne, who said he is personally opposed to lawyers "advertising" their fees, said he supports the legal register provided by and through the District of Columbia Bar.

He said the voluntary listing of fee information by an attorney is part of the "traditional role" of the bar to keep the public informed about its activities.

The listing is kept in four loose-leaf binders in the District of Columbia Bar's eightfloor offices. A member of the bar group's staff, Robert Horsey, is available to help members of the public use the books.

Some attorneys who list fees in the register emphasize they may adjust their normal rates depending on the ability of a client to pay. Others indicate their rates are inflexible, while still others say they will discuss their fees only in person with a client

Some of the listings are specific.

For example, Alexander Breuer of Marlow Heights, Md, said he charges a one-third contingency fee for a personal injury case, and ups that rate to 40 per cent if the case goes to trial.

Breuer said further that he charges a flat fee for a criminal case, with a minimum of $500. He said he charges $75 for simple wills and $350 for complex wills.

Ronert Herzstein, with the prestigious downtown firm of Arnold and Porter, said his fee "will be discussed with client at initial conference."

Susan N. Lee, with a community legal group at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, said she charges $20 an hour. A simple will costs $40, according to her fee schedule and an uncontested divorce costs $140.

According to attorney Daniel Reiss's listing, on the other hand, he charges $125 an hour for cases involving international corporate or transportation matters.

Attorney John Alexander said he charges a minimum retainer of $1,000 and bases his final fee on a $100 minimum per hour.

Although the fee information is a unique feature of the listing the District of Columbia Bar urges people who use the directory not to base their selection on fee alone.

"The lawyer's background and experience are also important. References are especially useful because they indicate whether other clients have been well served." the bar says inits instruction on using the register. Many of the attorneys included in the register list references, and other s say they will provide references on request.

"This is a new kind of lawyer referal service," Rhyne said yesterday. "Normally a prospective client would get only the names of one, two or three lawyers about whom he would reallly know nothing. I'm not down-grading the traditional referal service, but the time has come for the public to get more information."