THE ELDERLY WASHINGTON property owner thought he had been wronged, so he engaged a lawyer who for three years did nothing - not even returning his client's phone calls.

That's client neglect - the most common cause of complaints about lawyers to the D.C. Bar. And in a reversal of past practices, the Bar's Board of Professional Responsibility its - disciplinary arm - has decided to get tough with lawyers who neglect their clients.

"We're interested in looking at neglect more closely than has been the practice in the past," said Daniel M. Gribbon, the Covington & Burling partner who heads the board.

"The thing that would do the most good is some harsh discipline in some of these cases," added Allen R. Snyder, another board member who is a partner in Hogan & Hartson.

To add strength to the board members' words was the decision last month to recommended disbarment for Charles S. Carter, who neglected a client who was paying him a $30 fee - the first time the disciplinary group had ever recommended disbarment for client neglect. (The D.C. Court of Appeals has the final responsibility to mete out attorney discipline and will act on the board's recommendation.)

"There is apparently a prevasive pattern of what could be called client abuse. We have seen enough examples from enough different areas of the city to know that. We can see they come from any part of the community and at any part of the economic scale," said Robert C. Maynard, a former Washington Post editorial writer who is a nonlawyer member of the Board.

The elderly property owner, for instance, is a white suburbanite, not a poor black, and his attorney is a man be thought was a friend. (Under the rules set by the Court of Appeals, the D.C. Bar can not release the names of either the lawyer or the complaining client.)

In that case, the elderly property owner finally complained to the D.C. Bar and only after two letters - the last one charging neglect - did the attorney take any action. He filed the lawsuit that the client had wanted three years earlier, but the suit was promptly dismissed. The lawyer, according to a summary of the disciplinary proceedings read at a board meeting, denied that the suit was dismissed because the statute of limitation had passed but offered no other explanation.