WHEN SHIRLEY A. GRASTY walked into the conference room in the law offices of Wilmer Cutler and Pickering, she saw power.

Apprehensively, Grasty surveyed an assembly of lawyers -- all men -- form Washington's biggest and most prestigious firms. They were there at the invitation of John H. Pickering, the president of the D. C. Bar.

This was a man of influence, Grasty realized, and now he was her unexpected and welcome ally.

Grasty is the managing director of the American Federation of Community Credit Unions. She was there as Pickering's guest, to help persuade the firms to make $10,000 investment apiece in seven neighborhood credit unions that give financial aid to the city's poor.

Pickering shook her hand and put her at ease, Grasty said. He had a warmth "that you normally don't find with top-notch lawyers."

This wasn't "a snake oil sales" Pickering told the lawyers.He didn't expect anyone to "jump up and say 'I'll take two bottles.'" He wanted them to listen, to take the information back to the firms and think about it. To get the ball rolling, Wilmer Cutler and Pickering pledged to deposit $10,000.

The appeal to the law firms grew out of a decision by the D.C. Bar to cease investing its funds in the community credit unions.

Since 1972, the Bar has invested about $60,000 in the credit unions -- the only option other than loan sharks for inner-city residents, many of whom are considered bad credit risks by banks and other financial institutions.

But the credit union's interest rate was too low to meet the requirements of the Bar's Board of Governors and sometimes there were no dividends, said David Epstein, D.C. Bar treasurer last year.

Stuck with a $50 ceiling on its membership dues -- set by the D.C. Court of Appeals -- and rising expenses, the Bar decided it would have to put its funds somewhere else, Epstein said.

The Bar, as trustee of somebody else's money, had certain obligations when it came to investments, Epstein said. But the law firms are private institutions that can make their own investment decisions, he said.1hence the meeting two weeks ago at Wilmer Cutler and Pickering.

Pickering drew up a list of 40 of the biggest, most successful firms in town, from Arnold and Porter to Williams and Connolly, to Covington and Burling, Hogan and Hartson, Steptoe and Johnson and so on. He sent them all a letter inviting them to his office for meeting with the credit unions.

Grasty and officials of the individual credit unions prepared charts and put together booklets for the lawyers. Grasty knew that the presentation had to be good. It could mean close to half a million dollars in investments -- big investments that the community credit unions never came close to getting before.

"I thought they were impressive -- certainly dedicated," said Robert Schack, the director of administration for the Washington law firm of Wald Harkrader and Ross. The credit unions opened their books, Schack said, and made no attempt to hide the problems that have long strained their operations.

The community credit unions were organized in the mid-1960s, backed up by antipoverty money funneled through the United Planning Organization. They have survived despite some management problems and a high rate of delinquent borrowers, and they remain a struggling pool of resources that gives a degree of financial self-sufficiency to low-income residents.

The federation was organized in 1968 to oversee the Washington community credit unions and help keep them afloat. Grasty said the credit unions now have about 20,000 members and close to $4 million in assets. Deposits are federally insured up to $40,000.

About 20 lawyers attended the meeting that afternoon at Wilmer Cutler and Pickering. John Pickering wasn't saying who showed up and who didn't.

"I didn't take a show of hands" on who would make a financial commitment to the credit unions, Pickering said. "I think they [the deposits] will come."

The first came late last week, from Hogan and Hartson. They will make a deposit of $10,000, Pickering said.

In a 4-to-1 vote Thursday, the Securities and Exchange Commission took a half step with Charles Halpern, director of the Institute for Public Representation, on his petitions about lawyer whistle-blowing on illegal corporate activities.

The commission, with member Roberta S. Karmel dissenting, agreed to publish and solicit comments on a Halpern petition that keeps the lawyers obligation to report within the corporation and its board of directors. Another petition, which would have required the lawyer to report fraudulent activity to the SEC if the corporation refused to act, was unanimously rejected by the commission.

The full U. S. Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the debate on the amount of fees to be awarded Wilmer Cutler and Pickering for its successful representation of Dolores J. Copeland in a sex discrimination suit against the secretary of labor. The firm wanted $206,000, but U.s. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell countered with $160,000. A three-judge appeals panel then sent the case back to Gesell and suggested that he exchange the traditional hourly fee scale for a cost-plus reasonable profit formula. That idea sent chills through the big law firms that take public interest cases and worry that the court is becoming a rate maker.

In a brief order, the full court said it wants to hear the case in September. At the same time Judge Malcolm R. Wilkey issued a 26-page clarification of the panel's decision.

OBITER: Due to a typographical error, it was reported in this column last week that one of the law clerks to the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a job with the NCAA -- the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Actually, the job is with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Said the clerk in question: "I don't even like sports."