THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL, in a recent, startling survey, found only 12 blacks among more than 3,700 partners in the nation's 50 biggest and most powerful law firms. Six of the blacks work in Washington, and two are at the same firm - Hogan and Hartson., In the four Washington firms that made the top 50, there are approximately 264 partners, four of whom are black, and approximately 14 black lawyers among 341 associates, the Journal said.

"It's ridiculous," said a black partner in one Washington law firm. There are a variety of explanations but no real answers to explain why only a handful of the nation's 11,000 black lawyers have penetrated the lucrative and influential world of the big firms.

The explanations run from the number of places for black students in influential law schools, to the appeals that government and industry jobs have over law firms, to lingering suspicions of racism.

Only a little more than a decade has passed since black student enrollment increased at the major law schools, the traditional breeding ground for young associates at the top firms. And as the system goes, it takes a good seven years to make a partner out of an associate. The Journal estimates there are 525,000 lawyers in the country.

"We're new to this whole thing," said James V. Hackney, a black lawyer who is an associate at Steptoe and Johnson in Washington.

Until recently, there has been a "limited number of black students" who had "those paper credentials" that give them a ticket into the big firms, said Stephen J. Pollak, president-elect of the D.C. Bar and a partner at Shea anf Gardner. Pollak is white.

Some say iths because young black lawyers are often lured away from the firms by opportunities in government, private industry or teaching. "Because they're black and bright, they stand out as people available for those jobs," one black lawyer said.

"Because there aren't large numbers of black law school graduates, you get somewhat the same phenomenon you get with women law school graduates - they're highly sought out," said Brookesley Landau, a partner at Arnold and Porter, who is white.

And there are those lawyers who say there still exists, in some firms, a subtle kind of racism. They way it's that slight undertone that black lawyers don't have the pull, the country club memberships and the social contacts to bring in the big clients that the big firms serve.

"If you've got a law firm that represents major white, male-dominated clients, they're going to look for that in a lawyers," said one white attorney. "The practice of law at the major firms tends to be reflective of business society, and business society still tends to be white male-dominated."

And, some black lawyers say, there persists a notion about quality.

"Believe me, the stigma is still there that in recruiting minorites you are getting a lesser quality," said one black lawyer who recently graduated from a prestigious law school that feeds to the big firms.

"Whatever the reasons," said Frederick B. Abramson, a black partner at Sach, Greenebaum and Tayler in Washington, the Statistics are "just not very good."

The black partners at the four Washington law firms in the Journal's top 50 were Vincent H. Cohen and Alphonso A. Christian II at Hogan and Hartson; former D.C. Corporation Counsel John R. Risher at Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin and Kahn, and Wesley S. Williams Jr. at Covington and Burling. The fourth firm, Arnold and Porter, has no black partners.

Two other black lawyers - and partners - practice in the Washington offices of two major out-of-town law firms: former Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman Jr. for O'Melveny and Myers of Los Angeles and Samuel C. Jackson for New York's Stroock and Lavan, according to the Journal Survey.

The Journal's list of top 50 firms is based on the number of partners and associates in each firm. The big 50 employ 100 to 200 lawyers, and their clients are the elite among those who seek out legal services, including the wealthiest corporations in the country.

If all the predominantly white law firms in Washington were considered - not just those that fit in the Journal's top 50 - there might be a total of a dozen black partners, Abramson estimated.

"The numbers are so minuscule . . . and this is probably a better city than some others" for black lawyers who want to climb into partnerships at the firms, Abramson said.

Coleman said he thought the Journal survey was "somewhat misleading" since it was limited to the big 50 firms. The major New York firms, for example, might take 25 or 30 law school graduates but, black or white, only one will make partner, Coleman said. "Its a tough track," he added.

Coleman said he thinks there may be more black partners in the middle-level firms. J. Clay Smith Jr., a black lawyer who spent three years with Arent Fox and is now a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, disagrees. In the firms of 50 lawyers or less, Smith estimated, there would be a "barren land of black lawyers and associates," perhaps because those firms don't recruit and don'd feel a need to hire black lawyers and none apply for jobs.

Smith, a student of the progress of black lawyers, recently told a Virginia bar group that, by his calculations, close to 15 percent of the nation's black lawyers are in private practice and about 30 percent are in federal and state government jobs. According to Smithhs estimates, 20 percent work for corporations, either as lawyers or in some other kind of job, and an additional 20 percent of the black lawyers today are either in nonlegal jobs or unemployed. Four percent of the black lawyers are with public interest firms and about 2 percent teach in the law schools.

"There may be some truth to the argument that it's hard to keep good black attorneys because they have the opportunity for better jobs, for faster achievement and more money" outside the firms, said Pauline A. Schneider, another Arent Fox lawyer who left after 15 months for a nonlegal job on the White House staff.

"We've had a great many black lawyers in the firm who have left," said Charlies A.

Black law students who do end up in the big firms "recognize and are fully aware of the isolation that will follow" in a largely white environment, said one young black lawyers. "But they're used to that."

This lawyer's sense was that the young black associates are from strong, middle-class backgrounds and are well adjusted for the move into the upwardly mobile corporate system of the big firms. But some black lawyers suffer from the "pressure of being the only black" at the firm. Others, like many of their white counterparts, "find a firm to be a very sterile environment to work in," this lawyer said. Those factors, combined with attractive opportunities available to black lawyers outside the firms, encourage departures.

Hackney, of Steptoe and Johnson said that a couple of years ago a group of young black lawyers got together to try to figure out how to increase the number of black associates and partners at the white-dominated law firms. They decided they would have to make themselves visible, meet with black students at the major law schools and show them that black associates do exist at the big white firms.

Since then, black lawyers from Washington's prestigious white firms have traveled around the country, not necessarily to recruit black lawyers, Hackney said, but to say, "Okay, here we are. Think about it."