John Donovan, 80, a Washington lawyer specializing in libel cases, died of cancer Nov. 11 at his home in Potomac.

One of his best known clients was the late Drew Pearson, who wrote a column, The Washington Merry-Go-Round.

Mr. Pearson, who frequently was the center of libel suits, brought Mr. Donovan to Washington to represent him in 1947. They were associated until Mr. Pearson's death in 1969.

Mr. Donovan had been semiretired in recent years but continued to maintain an office in Washington.

Born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, he served with the British Army during World War 1. He came to this country in 1920 and earned degrees from the University of Nevada and Harvard Law School.

Mr. Donovan practiced law in California and Nevada before World War 11. He entered the Navy in 1942, served in the Pacific during the war and retired for disaility in 1947. He had been commander of a Carrier Air Service Unit (CASU) squadron.

A member of the California, Nevada and D.C. Bars, Mr. Donovan was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. He belonged to the Army and Navy Club.

He is survived by a sister, Mary, of Leeds.