William P. Alford spent so much time studying Chinese history and language that some relatives despaired that he'd ever get a job. One uncle even asked why he was learning Chinese -- did he want to run a laundry?

But Alford, 30, also graduated from Harvard Law School 18 months ago with a special expertise in Chinese law, and now he thinks those 11 years of study may pay off as American businessmen seek lawyers with his special knowledge to help them get a piece of the newly blossoming China trade.

An associate with the firm of Fried, Frank Harris, Shriver and Kampelman here, Alford is one of a handful of lawyers across the country who have acquired -- by schooling or experience, chance or design -- a knowledge of the Chinese language and the Chinese way of doing things.

With the establishment of relations between Washington and Peking, Alford and the other members of his elite band may seem to be on top of the world, professionally speaking, but they face a formidable obstacle in the traditional Chinese dislike of lawyers.

"The Chinese believe that lawyers are troublemakers, pettifoggers, shysters and -- this is perhaps the most damning of all -- that they are utterly superfluous," wrote Preston M. Torbert of the Taiwan branch of Baker and McKenzie in an August 1977 article for the American Bar Association Journal.

"They can't understand why you would want to hire two bright people to obscure the truth," said Alford, who attributes this attitude to Confucian teaching and a "heinous" exploitation of the Chinese people by western attorneys dating back to the opium wars of the 1800s.

But with U.S.-China trade expected to jump into the billions of dollars, law firms on the east and west coasts are getting calls from clients who want a piece of the action.

One Washington-New York firm was asked by a client about the chances of China's gaining "most favored nation" status for import duties. Another firm is trying to get a Miami company the right to sell cigars made from Cuban-type tobacco in China.

As an indication of the increased interest in Chin among lawyers, the Federal Bar Association, the D.C. Bar, the American Bar Association and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia quickly scheduled a luncheon program for Jan. 31 on China trade, and the Federal Bar is planning a 1 1/2-day symposium on it for later in the year.

"I and a lot of others are excited about the opportunities open for us now to combine our different interests -- law and China," said Alford.

He holds a master's degree in Chinese studies from Yare and started work for a Ph.D. in Chinese history there, but left for Harvard Law School where he took a special Chinese law program.

Nonetheless, he has mixed emotions about what appears to be a new westernization of China -- at least as far as the law in concerned.

"I don't want to see China repeat the errors of the past," said Alford, recalling the way the Western nations carved up China into spheres of influence and established their own legal systems there. Great Britain ran the customs service in Shanghai as recently as the 1930s, he said.

When he started 15 months ago with Fried, Frank handling international trade cases, there appeared to be little chance he could use his China knowledge.

Even though the firm encouraged him to keep up his interest in China, and gave him extra vacation time so he could travel there, Alford said he doesn't believe he was hired as a result of his expertise.

"They were interested in whether I could cut the mustard as a good attorney," he said.

The same is true of Henry Pfiefer, recently hired as an associate with the San Francisco firm of Lillick, McHose & Charles. He, too, specialized in Chinese language, history and culture in college, but "during law school I saw more opportunity in specializing in Japan -- an almost universal recognition of people in my era, three or four years ago," Pfiefer said.

"China had nothing to do with my being hired," he said, but he admitted that the changing situation enhances his value to the firm. Although he has no clients presently involved in the China trade, he said, "I'd love to find some."

Attorneys established in the China trade report an increase in business since President Carter announced the change in relations between the two nations.

"It's greater than I would have expected," said Eugene A. Theroux of the Washington office of Baker & McKenzie, one of a very few lawyers in the country who has developed a strong practice in China trade since President Nixon visited there in 1972.

He is conducting the joint bar associations' Jan. 31 seminar on China Trade here and another seminar in New York next month for the American Management Association.

Stanley Lubman of the San Francisco firm of Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe is probably the only Amercan attorney whose entire practice is devoted to China trade. He left last week on his 17th trip to the People's Republic of China and said, "I'm busier than I've ever been."

Walter Surrey of Surrey, Karasik & Morse, who has negotiated with the Chinese government on behalf of the National Council for U.S.-China Trade, said several clients have asked about opening trade talks with the Chinese since the Carter announcement.

These three lawyers -- Surrey, Lubman and Theroux -- are considered ahead of the rest of the profession in capturing China business."They've been at it so long," said one non-lawyer expert in trade with China, "that they've got a clear edge on everybody."

Until recently, the Chinese have been able to conduct international business without lawyers. American businessmen were so anxious to get a foothold in China that they often were willing to do without legal counsel. Moreover, most of the Chinese trade contracts have been with Japanese or European businessmen, who depend far less on lawyers than Americans do.

But men like Lubman, who act as much as a sales agent as an attorney, and major deals with firms such as Boeing and RCA, who demand attorneys, have changed things.

"The Chinese are now becoming quite accustomed to the idea of lawyers," said Harvard Law Professor Jerome A. Cohen, who has trained most of the young China law experts.

"They have people -- you wouldn't call them lawyers, it's still an opprobrium there -- but they just happen to know what lawyers know," Cohen said.

China also is looking outside for knowledge about legal systems. A group of Chinese, for instance, are studying the Japanese patent system and an American Bar Association group that visited China in July was asked to leave stacks of books on such areas as admiralty, maritime and international commercial law.