ADM. HYMAN G. RICKOVER, father of America's nuclear submarine fleet, never has made any secret of his disdain for lawyers. His congressional testimony is peppered with examples of how lawyers have impeded Navy efforts to build better ships for the lowest price, and he has been especially critical of former government lawyers who end up working for private industry.

Never has the sharp-tongued 79-year-old admiral, the naval mentor of President Carter, directed such a concentrated assault on the legal profession as he did Friday night in a speech before the New York Patent Law Association.

"It has been my experience," he said, "that members of the legal profession are contributing substantially to the erosion of values and instituions on which our societies are based. In their quest for money and power, many lawyers seem to have forgotten their obligations."

He pointed out that lawyers are listed as "officers of the court," entrusted by society with supervising the administration of justice.

"The American people expect our so-called officers of the court to be more than mercenaries," Rickover said. "Yet, in pursuit of their own interest, many lawyers have lost sight of the public good . . . There has been a breach of faith by lawyers-and the public knows it."

He even attacked one of the pillars of American law-the notion that the adversary system demands that lawyers defend their clients vigorously whether they have a case or not. This, Rickover said, is "a rationalization for practicing the law in a way that frequently offends justice and debases the integrity of our judicial system.

Rickover said lawyers deliberately try to confuse issues to bolster a weak case, and accused corporate attorneys of causing massive holdups in the judicial process through "frivolous litigation, legal maneuvering, massive discovery campaigns and delaying actions." Lawyers, he continued, "seem indifferent to the effect their litigative tactics have on their victims."

Rickover cited his experiences as the Navy officer responsible for building, designing and running 152 nuclear reactors in ships and on the shore.

In one case, he said, the government decided 15 years ago it was overcharged $500,000 on a ship-building contract. The case came to trial only in December, and he said it will take a year to get a decision. In another instance, he said, a major conglomerate refused to honor its contract with the navy. The legal fight over the issue has gone on for four years, including 40 days that he spent being questioned by the company's lawyers as part of pretrial discovery.

"Had they been interested only in gathering information," Rickover said, "they could have completed the questioning in one to two hours. Of course the longer they take, the more money these high-priced lawyers make."

One reason for Rickover's anger in that case may have been that he just learned the lawyers want him for more questioning.

If his hosts, the patent lawyers, thought they would escape Rickover's wrath, they were wrong. Midway through his talk, he shifted to patent attorneys who, he said, "frequently promote concepts which favor their large clients while purporting to be looking out for the public interest."

As an example, he said the patent bar argues that private contractors should have exclusive rights to inventions developed at government expense. "Yet, rarely if ever have I heard patent lawyers criticize these contractors for requiring their employes to give up all rights to inventions developed at contractor expense."

He said patent lawyers speak in favor of competition and the free enterprise system. "In practice, however, they help large companies fence out competition by blanketing fields of technology with patents and patent applications on ideas and items not worthy of patents.

"Small firms that cannot afford the delay and cost of infringement litigation do not enter the market."

Finally Rickover took on the American Bar Association, which he said "should be renamed the American Bar Protective Association." He said the ABA "operates more like a trade association than a professional society."

To back this point, he accused its public contracts law section of masking itself under the flag of the ABA to lobby against the government in favor of the interests of claims attorneys and their private clients.

"Claims lawyers, like other citizens, are entitled to lobby members of Congress in their own behalf," Rickover said. "But for them to do so by using the American Bar Association as the umbrella degrades the entire profession. Why does the ABA tolerate such actions taken in its name?"

Rickover said the New York Patent Lawyers Association invited him to speak about his careers, national defense, history-anything but patents-because its members and guests "want to enjoy themselves."

"I do not have the slighest interest in providing entertainment for dinner parties or for anything else," Rickover said as he launched into his anti-lawyers diatribe.

Has the law school boom ended? The National Law Journal has found that applications for law schools declined 14 per cent this year as students have decided against legal careers in favor of business schools, which cost less and requires fewer years of study.

The National Law Journal said applications from blacks and Hispanics have dropped 40 percent at many schools while American Indians and Puerto Ricans continue to show an interest in law as a profession.

Short Takes: Stephan E. Lawton, former chief counsel of the House subcommittee on health and the environment has become a partner in Pierson, Ball & Dowd, the firm he left eight years ago to go on the hill . . . Sidney B. Rawitz, former general counsel of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and former chief immigration judge and associate commissioner of the Immigration & Naturalization Service, has joined Schmeltzer, Aptaker & Sheppard in a counsel position.