Five years ago 26 people showed up in a makeshift classroom in a borrowed church basement on 20th Street NW and became the first class of the International School of Law.

Today the church basement has returned to being a church basement, the student body has expanded from 26 to close to 600, and the students are learning about torts in what used to be the appliance corner of the old Kann's Department Store in Arlington, which the school plans to buy for use as a campus.

The International School of Law, conceived at a lawyer's prayer breakfast, is undeniably a success story by just about any measure. As such it parallels the success attained by 25 other such schools started since 1970 to meet the rapidly expanding demand for legal education.

These schools have no hallowed traditions, no halls of ivy, and most, like the International School of Law, are unaccredited. But graduates of the school can, by special dispensation from District of Columbia and Virginia authorities, take bar examinations. Their pass rate is about 60 per cent as opposed to the 74 per cent pass rate average for other law school graduates.

Until the fall of 1972, the idea for the International School of Law was but a thought in the minds of four Washington lawyers. John W. Brabner-Smith, George L. Powell, James Fisk and Phil Jordan, who discussed it at a series of weekly prayer luncheons.

From those discussions came the conclusion that the Washington area, with an average of 15 applications for each space in the city's six existing law schools, had room for one more school.

As they talked, the four founders became convinced that the lawyers coming out of law schools were as one put it, "skilled technicians," but they were after a school that would stress ethics and morality in legal education.

"It was something we wanted to do, so we went ahead and did it," said Powell, president of the school and a retired administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board. "And with the help of God, a lot of prayer and a lot of hard work, we have done it."

According to Millard Ruud, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, the pressure for additional space began building in the early 1970s when it became apparent that qualified students were being denied admission at existing schools.

"Some of the existing schools began to increase their enrollments," Ruud said, "but new ones were being formed too."

In some cases the new law schools were organized by existing institutions. Yeshive University in New York and Campbell College in North Carolina, for example, both of which have law schools in their second year of operation.

Others are unaffiliated with any existing institution, the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Lansing, Minch., for example. Founded by Thomas E. Brennan, former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, the Cooley Law School opened in January, 1973. It now has provisional accreditation from the ABA and its enrollment is 982 students.

Brennan, the founder of the school and dean, resigned his post on the Supreme Court when Detroit newspapers raised questions about his holding both positions simultaneously.

In Washington, the International School of Law lived a hand to mouth existence in its early years, moving from the church basement to the National Lawyers Club and from there to a series of buildings on Rhode Island Ave. N, including one set of adjoining structures that included a remodeled stable out back.

But enrollments continued to climb each year and the tuition payments - $2,730 a year per full time student - were enough to cover expenses. By March, International was ready for the move to the old Kann's store, a block from the future Clarendon Metro station.

Daily now, the stark, three-story building, a victim of Clarendon's economic decline, offers the incongrucus sight of budding lawyers studing contracts where bedroom suites once were displayed. Small signs on the escalators warn that children should held by the hand, and the bargain basement has been converted into a law library.

There were some remarks when we moved in about a bargain basement legal education, but really this is ideally suited for us," says Ralph Norvell, dean of the law school. With 141,000 square feet of floor space, and parking for more than 1,000 cars, there is ample room for a planned expansion to 1,100 students by the 1980s, he adds. The school is currently exercising an option to buy the property for $3 million, with tentative financing already arranged.

A former dean of Temple University Law School and a professor of law at the University of South Carolina law School, Norvell came to International two years ago after the school failed in its first bid to win accreditation from the American Bar Association.

Failure to win accreditation means the school's graduates are ineligible to take the bar examination in some states while in others they can take the bar exams only with the express permission of the state court of appeals.

International's graduates have been given permission to take bar exams in the District, Virginia and a few other states, but not in Maryland, pennsylvania or New York.

"I aim to do much better than that," says Norvell. The school, he said plans to ask for a review next year by the American Bar Association, "and we'll be very disappointed if we don't get provisional approval."

In its early years, said Norvell, International was known as a Christian law school, "but, in fact, it is a law school founded by Christians. The founders felt their first religious obligation was to make it a school that would provide a sound legal education."

Religious beliefs do not enter the curriculum as such, Norvell said, "although we do try to consider what kind of a lawyer a person will be in 20 years and we make no secret of the fact that we have a concern for moral values and ethics."

As for himself, Norvell says, he came to international from an endowed professorship at South Carolina "because I was seeing here the last gasp of the pioneer spirit that I hadn't seen at the established law schools."

"I found a willingness to see if you couldn't do something a little differently from what had always been done." Specifically, Norvell says, he's trying to shift the emphasis in the curriculum to include less of case law and more of such skills as client counseling and problem analysis.

Norvell was brought to International specifically because the school was looking for someone with experience in legal education to guide the school towards accreditation.

Neither the first dean of the law school, John Babner-Smith, nor any of the other three founders had had any experience in legal education. The same was true for most of the faculty members, many of whom had been government lawyers, administrative law judges or attorneys in private practice.

"We didn't have anything. Money, books or faculty. We just went out and started the school," said Powell, the president. "We decided on the name, International, because all the other good names were already taken."

Nevertheless the school was able to induce men like David F. Condon, former deputy chief commissioner of the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, to sign on and gradually a faculty was put together.

"I had wanted to teach for a while. This was a good opportunity," said Condon, who teaches trial advocacy and recruits up and down the East Coast for International.

Most students, he said, balk at the school's unaccredited status. "We are vigorously pursuing accreditation. We are going to make it," he tells them.

While the largest single contingent of students at International is from Washington, Maryland or Virginia, most students are from elsewhere, including New England, New York and the other Mid-Atlantic states.

"Everyone here is so concerned about the status of the school," said third year student Joseph Petrillo of Westchester County, New York. A graduate of New York's Iona College, Petrillo said he considered New York law schools, but then applied to International, in part, because admission would be easier than in New York.

"I think we try a little harder in this school," said Petrillo. "Some people think you're in an unaccredited school and it's easy. I think it's harder. We're trying to conform to high standards, but we want to be a little different."