The nation may view all lawyers as Perry Masons, but criminal law traditionally holds little interest for the big time corporate attorneys who make up the elite of the profession.

That view is reflected in the American Bar Association, where policy decisions regarding criminal law always have been the exclusive domain of an amalgamation of professors, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys who make up its Criminal Justice Section.

That is now changing with the new national emphasis on prosecuting white collar crimes and the realization that corporate executives may be called up on criminal charges and face time in the slammer like common burglars and robbers.

As a result, the ABA's sections on antitrust and corporate banking and business law for the first time are taking an interest in the way the nation's criminal laws are being revised -- an area in which the criminal justice section has been the ABA's loan voice for the past decade.

Not surprising, the suggestions of the corporate lawyers run counter to those of the criminal justice section, which wants stiffer penalties -- including forcing companies to pay restitution and double damage fines in cases where the public is cheated -- for white collar offenses.

This will lead to the rare spectacle of a public battle between contending sections of the ABA before its policymaking House of Delegates on Monday -- something the organized Bar tries to prevent in an effort to present a united front on major issues.

ABA leaders have been trying to heal the split by sponsoring negotiations between the three sections during the opening days of its mid-winter meeting here, but vast differences still remain.

Although a fight between factions of lawyers in their national trade association may not seem important to the public, the influence of the ABA comes from its specialized sections who speak for the organization as a whole.

What the antitrust lawyers say through their section often is reflected in government antitrust policy. The same is true of the tax sections, which often holds private meetings in Washington with Treasury and Internal Revenue officials and with key legislators and their aides on tax writing committees.

The criminal justice section for example, has been called to appear later this month before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice to describe its proposed changes in the federal criminal code.

That testimony, to be given by Georgetown University Law professor William Greenhalgh, chairman of the Criminal Justice Section's Committee on Revisions to the Criminal Code, will reflect what the ABA,s House of Delegates does here this week.

A special committee of the ABA's corporation, banking and business law section headed by William F. Kennedy, chief counsel for General Electric Company, has presented its objections to propose provisions in the U.S. criminal code in the area of white collar crime in a slickly printed 80-page report to the ABA delegates. Greenhalgh said yesterday his subcommittee has resolved some of the differences with the corporate lawyers, "but there are areas where we still have firm differences of opinion."

The criminal law section has backed down on one proposal, even though it won the approval Thursday of the ABA's Board of Governors. That section, opposed by the corporate lawyers, would have made business executives criminally liable when their company fails to obey federal law in areas such as securities or environmental requirements.

Now, said Greenhalgh, the fight centers on the penalties for white collar crime. The criminal justice section has recommended innovative forms of punishment, including restitution, so victims of white collar crimes can recover money they lost without filing a civil law suit, double damage fines, and the suspension of the right of someone convicted of white collar crimes to continue in an occupation.

"In theory," said the corporate attorneys in opposing this, "an antitrust violator could pay six times the damages: once in restitution; twice more in a double damage fine, and still three times more in treble damages under the Clayton (antitrust) Act."

"This is where it's going to be fought on Monday," said Greenhalgh.

Speaking of white collar crime, FBI director William H. Webster (who headed the ABA's corporate, banking and business law section until last year) told the ABA Saturday that the federal government is intensifying its attack against white collar crimes, which cost the country an estimated $40 billion a year.

He said one-third of the FBI's 8,000 special agents spend their time investigating white collar crime and political corruption.

Lawyers here are steaming about a 16-page questionnaire the Federal Trade Commission has sent to all state bar organizations as part of an investigation to see if regulations that govern the conduct of lawyers also restrict competition. The FTC estimates it will take 30 hours to answer its questions, but some Bar executives here say it could take as long as 3,000 hours to find all the information the FTC wants.

Meanwhile, Harry A. Garfield II, the FTC's acting regional director in Boston, revealed that the investigation of lawyers has been yanked away from his office and placed under the direction of Paul R. Peterson of the Cleveland regional office.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, always somewhat camera shy, is more so than ever at this year's ABA meeting. Not only has he banned TV and radio coverage of his speech here Monday on The State of the Judiciary, but he is ducking out of receptions through kitchens to avoid TV cameramen trying to get footage of him to run behind stories about the contents of his speech.

One possible reason for Burger's extreme shyness: Mike Wallace, who is profiling Burger for CBS's 60 Minutes and who has been refused an on-camera interview with the chief justice, is here with a TV crew.

NBC and CBS, meanwhile, have filed formal protests with the ABA for not allowing them to televise Burger's speech. The ABA normally opens its meetings to television coverage.

Bar notes: In a novel way to get around charges of sexism, the ABA's Joint Commission on Professional Discipline defines the word he, him or his as "generic pronouns including both male and female"...

Washington is one of a dozen cities that will be studied by the ABA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to see how well its landlord/tenant court works... Young lawyers are angry over the proposal by a Burgernamed committee of attorneys and federal judges that would require lawyers to have trial experience and to pass a special test before being allowed to take cases to federal court. They say the proposal discriminates against them because more experienced attorneys will be covered by a grandfather clause. Another ABA group, the section on insurance, negligence and compensation law, also opposes the proposal on the grounds it would create "a small, elite group of expensive trial lawyers."