It looked like an old-fashioned newspaper circulation war. But instead of grimy urchins ready to kick a rival's bundle of newspapers into a mud puddle, the hawkers were pinstriped corporate types.

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] converged on the escalators leading to the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] desks of the American Bar Association meeting here, thrusting tabloid-sized [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in the hands of lawyers passing by.

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] are pushingone of the hottes new entries [WORD ILLEGIBLE] publishing market - newspapers aimed directlyat the nation's 462,000 lawyers.

One, The Legal Times of Washington, already as begun publishing. Two others - The National Law Journal, which will start regular publication next month, and The American Lawyer, whose first regular issue is scheduled for January - published special preview editions for the ABA meeting.

They pulled out all the stops to call attention to their wares. The American Lawyer hired a Park Avenue public relations firm to get it mentioned in major papers, while The Legal Times and The National Law Journal are throwing big cocktail parties to build the impression of influence and too woo potential subscribers.

At least two of the publishers considered having women in tight T-shirts bearing their logos hawk the papers, but decided that would look undignified. Instead, executives of the papers passed them out.

Jay Kriegel, former aid to John V. Lindsay when he was mayor of New York, was hawking the Esquire-affiliated American Lawyer. Elbow to elbow with him was James A. Finklestein, publisher of the National Law Journal and son of New York political figure Jerry Finklestein, who runs The New York Law Journal. And in a nearby hall stood Stephen A. Glasser, co-publisher of Legal Times of Washington, which is owned by the publishing house of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Legal Times of Washington a weekly, is the most expensive of the three. A year's subscription costs $125. The National Law Journal, also a weekly, and aiming at a large audience, will sell for $48 a year. The American Lawyer, which will appear every other week, is the least expensive at $19.50 a year.

They are all trying to carve out separate images. The American Lawyer bills itself as "the first newspaper about lawyers and law firms but not about the law" while The Legal Times of Washington is aimed at the Washington lawyer but says half its subscriptions come from elsewhere. The National Law Journal says it contains more hard news and fewer features than the other two.

The rivalry among the three shows up in their news columns. The American Lawyer reported that the major New York-Paris international law firm, Coudert Brothers, will be the first foreign firm to set up shop in Saudi Arabia. Legal Times disagreed, saying that Coudert Brothers is joining a growing field with three Americans firms already operating there.

These new newspapers reflect a growing trend toward nationally oriented, rather than purely local, law firms and an increasing public awareness of the important role that lawyers play in American social, economic and political life.

Kriegel said he got the idea for The American Lawyer while traveling around the country as an executive for the Loews Corporation and noticing that lawyers in different cities are interested in news and gossip about the profession.His publication is edited by Steven Brill, who did investigative political articles about George C. Wallace and Jimmy Carter before starting a law column for Esquire.

"I wish them all luck, but I wish me more," said James Finklestein.

David Beckwith, former legal writer for Time magazine, who now edits The Legal Times of Washington, said he welcomes the competition. "I don't know how long the euphoria will last, but I like the competition."

But, are the nation's lawyers - among the most conservative of professionals - ready for this kind of news coverage?

The new newspapers weren't the only hawkers at the ABA meeting. Robert J. Card, a former carpenter and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, spent $2,000 to hire men and women to walk around the convention in T-shirts advertising a marketing-advertising franchise operation he is trying to start for lawyers. He said he applied too late for exhibition space at the convention and decided instead to use the T-shirst to spread the name of his firm, LawServ.

His notion is that few lawyers practicing alone can afford the high costs of advertising, especially on television. But by buying a LawServ franchise they can share production costs of TV spots. Beyond that. Card envisions providing a whole array of services for lawyers, including computer sharing, the same way that a businessman who buys a Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald's franchise gets services from home office.

Washington is catching up with New York as the most popular city for new law school graduates. The latest report by the National Association of Law Placement, showed that 1,227 of the 20,000 law school graduates surveyed have setttled in Washington compared to 1,275 for New York - traditionally the city that far and away had led with the greater population of lawyers.

Chicago was the third most popular city [WORD ILLEGIBLE] graduates settling there; Los Angeles fourth qwith 475 lawyers: San Francisco fifth, 454: Philadelphia sixth, 389 and Boston seventh, 364; Atlant eighth, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Dallas ninth, 241, and Denver tenth, 240.

Jacoby & Meyers, the Los Angeles-base firm that pioneeredthe concept of cut-rate legal clinics toserve routine needs of middle-class Americans, plans to expand to New York later this year. They have hired Gail Koff, who has just left the major New York firm of Skadden, Arps. Slate, Meagher and Flom to run their New York City branches and a former attorney with the National Legal Services Corp. in Washington.