THE AVERAGE AMERICAN has four or five significant legal problems in a lifetime -- a divorce or a will, a real estate settlement, an auto accident, a consumer or job complaint. But the vast majority of those potential clients rarely get a lawyer, because they don't know how to find one, they can't afford the fees or they don't realize they need a lawyer in the first place.

Lawyer advertising, low-cost legal clinics, storefront offices and bar referral services have helped provide legal services at a reasonable price. And legal help at barbain rates has been increasingly available to groups, such as unions and employ associations, with the advent of pre-paid legal services plans. Members pay a small fee on a regular basis that guarantees them access to a lawyer when they need help with routine legal problems.

Now a huge, Chicago-based insurer has decided to take the delivery of low-cost legal servces a step farther. By next spring, Bankers Life & Casualty Corp. will have geared up its direct mail services and mobilized its 3,000 salesman to begin massive promotion of legal insurance policies directly to individual consumers.

Bankers expects to offer individual policies at $10 to $13 per month. Policies will provide for unlimited telephone advice from a lawyer on almost any subject and coverage for general personal legal problems, like divorce, wills and real estate settlements, as well as review of documents, like contracts and leases.

To get this venture off the ground, Bankers has hired W. H. C. Venable, a Richmond civil rights lawyer who is chairman of the Virginia Bar's prepaid committee, and Sandra DeMent. DeMent spent six years at Washington's National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services, where she was executive director and chief lobbyist for pre-paid legal services plans.

"I see it as the next logical step . . . If legal services are going to be broadly available," DeMent said.

Banker's venture is not without its risks. Various major insuers, including Predential, Travelers and Lloyd's of London, have decided against writing individual legal insurance policies. They are unsure of the market and wary of the cost.

"The state of the art is not good enough to go on an individual basis," said Arthur W. Ericson, a vice president and associate actuary for group insurance at Prudential.

Bankers, the first major insurer to mass-market individual legal policies, disagrees. DeMent and Venable believe the group plans exclude large numbers of consumers who have legal problems but don't belong to unions or associations that make the low-cost plans available. Bankers, they said, made its name on low-cost health insurance at high volume sales. Bankers, Venable said, has the "research and muscle" to explore the concept of legal insurance on a national scale.

It has been 10 years since consumer activists like DeMent began the real push for low-cost law. Since then, group plans have proven to be a salable commodity. Estimates are that 5 million people are covered by more than 3,500 plans -- paid by employers or sponsored by groups. The market for plans "is growing but not booming. It's going to be a slow process," said Alex M. Schwartz, the executive director of the American Pre-Paid Legal Services Institute. Individual policies pose additional problems, schwartz and others said.

For one thing, they said, studies have shown that when a consumer buys into an individual plan, he usually has a specific legal problem in mind; therefore, he immediately looks to the plan for help and thus increases the cost of service. Actual use of the plan -- and thus the cost to be absorbed -- in the first year is much lower, for example, in union plans in which all members must sign up and contribute, regardless of whether they have an immediate legal problem.

For that reason, the Bankers policy will include a six-month waiting period before certain civil matters, such as divorce and bankruptcy, will be covered, DeMent said.

Another problem for individual plans is cost. Spreading the risk and administrative expense across a pre-established group -- like a union -- keeps the premium down. The key for Bankers will be whether it achieves high volume.

For example, the Consumer Services Organization in Chicago, sponsored by a coalition of citizen and consumer activist groups, now offers a pre-paid legal services plans to individuals for $225 a year -- a $100 increase in cost since the project started a year ago. So far, the plan has 3,500 subscribers, mostly family members and homeowners in the $20,000-a-year salary range, according to the organization's director, Steven Jay Blutza. At one time, he said, the plan would need 5,000 to 7,000 subscribers to make it work.

The consumer organization's plan includes preparation of state and federal income tax forms, unlimited access to a consumer complaint hotline, unlimited legal consultation on civil legal matters not related to a business and the usual range of personal legal problems.

"We're the best buy in town for a divorce or a bankruptcy right now," Blutza said. He agreed, however, that many members sign up for the individual policies because they have an immediate legal need.

The test for the individual policies will be renewals, which Blutza said are "going a lot better than I thought."

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