LOOSELY ALIGNED UNDER the admittedly vague and self-righteous banner "public interest law," about 200 attorneys from across the country gathered here last week in an atmosphere ranging from cautious optimism to sheer gloom to discuss their future.

As might be expected, the old fiery rhetoric was there, the regular crowd of liberals attended, and there was the usual dosage of social rage about the plight of minorities, the poor, the disadvantaged, women, the environment, and other such categories.

But this time, an urgent underlying theme unified them, whatever their "cause": Money.

In a profession that may be second only to the sports world in measuring a person's success by the amount of money he or she earns, the "public interest" bar is clearly the minor leagues. Large law firms may pay fresh young law school graduates $35,000 a year, but many of those who have been practicing "public interest" work for the past 10 years have yet to come close to that mark.

Many lawyers who do such work say they are not concerned with salaries. They are more concerned, they say, with being able to have the minimal financial freedom to do the kind of work they have chosen.

For years, that minimal cushion was provided to a large extent by private foundations. Now, however, such organizations as the Ford Foundation have become more reluctant to part with their money for something as undefined as "public interest" legal work.

That reluctance is somewhat understandable when no one can really agree on what the term "public interest law" means. For the purposes of last weeks' conference at Georgetown University Law Center, however, those in attendance generally accepted that the term meant the representation of what former Attorney General Ramsey Clark called the "unrepresented and the under-represented" -- minorities, the poor, and other such groups.

Some of those attorneys who are more accustomed to arguing weighty constitutional rights issues in federal courts seemed somewhat uncomfortable discussing such topics as "The Nuts and Bolts of Public Interest Fund-raising."

But there was such a sense of urgency that everyone appeared to be trying to learn fundraising and financial survival tricks from the others.

Louise Trubek of the Wisconsin-based Center for Public Representation talked about using volunteer and low-paid workers, and wheeling and dealing with universities to get affiliated with them in some form.

Bruce Myerson, of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said his group gets a well-heeled private law firm to donate copying services. The Natural Resources Defense Council's Joan McCall told of the time she wheeled chairs down a New York street after the chairs were donated to her group by a law firm that was redecorating its offices.

Movie premiere and cocktail party benefits were other suggestions as ways to get donations from persons who might not otherwise be drawn to a "cause."

The main theme, however, was to diversify funding, a concept that includes everything from direct mail, campaigns to seeking government support to seeking donated labor from members of other segments of the bar.

The American Bar Association has been discussing a proposal that would require every member of the bar to donate 40 hours a year to "public interest" work. But many lawyers who attended the Georgetown conference said they oppose that idea because they question the quality of coerced legal work and the commitment behind it.

Peprhaps the most-discussed plan outside the regular workshops at the conference was that used at Ramsey Clark's firm in New York.

Clark said he believes a lawyer in his firm can justify billing a client for 1,500 hours of work a year. Instead of charging the normal full rate of $100 an hour for all those hours, the attorneys in Clark's firm give 500 hours of free time, 500 hours at reduced rates of $25 to $75 an hour, and 500 hours at the full rate.

That produces an income of about $75,000 a year per lawyer, Clark said, and $25,000 of that goes for overhead. The result for each lawyer is what he called a limited income of $50,000 -- about equal to judicial salaries.

One lawyer at the conference said he considered that an unusually high salary for "public-interest" work but noted that Ramsey Clark's name might draw enough clients at the full hourly rate to make the plan work The lawyer doubted whether his much lesser-known name and the names of other there would draw in as much business from clients who could pay that kind of rate.

Charles Halpern, director of Georgetown's Institute for Public Representatioin, said financial crises are nothing new in the "public interest law" sector and that he believes this one will be weathered. Expert prison litigator Alvin J. Bronstein, who somewhat smugly noted he has been doing such work for 30 years and therefore predates the "public interest" name tag, agreed.

In another context at the conference, American Civil Liberties Union legislative specialist Karen Christenson said "waving the flag of public interest isn't going to get you that many votes anymore."

It isn't going to get you that many dollars either, most participants might have responded.

The nominating committee of the District of Columbia Bar is accepting recommendations for the 1980-81 bar year. That is the group that selects nominees for the bar's highest offices, and recommendations should be sent to Myrtle Washington at the bar's offices, 1426 H St. NW. . .Leighton Conklin and Lemov has now become Leighton Conklin Lemov and Jacobs, and Lynda S. Zengerle has been elected to principal (partner) status in the firm. . . John W. Davis has been appointed acting director of the Reginald Heber Smith (Reggie) Community Lawyer Fellowship program at the Howard University Law School.