In their previous lives, before the war crushed their social order, they were Saigon lawyers -- member of Vietnam's professional elite.

Now one works as a house painter and another is a waiter. Three are unemployed. Four years after their flight, the fear and relief of escape have ebbed. What remains is the frustration of being left outside the courthouse, of being unable to use their expertise.

"We waste our time our time working jobs that don't correspond to our skill," says 62-year-old Nguyen Huu Phu in eloquent, French-accented English. "And the Vietnamese community needs legal advice."

Phu is president of the 3-year-old Vietnamese Lawyers Association, organization to serve 50 former Vietnamese lawyers here as well as the Northern Virginia refugee communities where most of them live. Because there are no Indochinese lawyers certified to practice in Northern Virginia, local officials say legal representation of an estimated 10,000 refugees is often inadequate.

"There is a very great need," says Nguyen Ngoc Bich, the Vietnamese resource specialist for Arlington County schools, who is one of the refugee community's most active leaders. The dual barriers of language and an ingrained aversion to courts, he says, have kept many Indochines refugees from seeking the protection of the law.

"Over there, most Vietnamese with problems wouldn't touch court action with a 10-foot pole," says Bich. "Here, it's very hard to avoid dealing with court. Law is more part of life in the United States. But if they (rufugees) run into harassment, employment or housing discrimination, they would rather avoid the conflict and just disappear."

Phu and six others in the association have taken the first steps toward easing the situation. This month, the seven former lawyers will be graduated from a legal-assistant program at George Washington University. The one-year, graduate-level course, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare, may lead more of them to jobs in legal offices. But to become certified lawyers they still need masters degrees in comparative law. Their attempts to enter such studies have been an exercise in frustration.

Officials at HEW have told Phu there are funds available for tuition and books for qualified Indochinese lawyers, but before the money can be allocated, HEW needs to receive a formal grant proposal from a university that offers a comparative law program. The only university in the area with such a program is George Washington, and officials at GW's National Law Center have informed HEW that no proposal will be made.

"Until and unless we receive a formal proposal on this matter from the university, it is not possible for us to move forward," wrote Phillip A. Holman, director of the special programs staff at HEW, in a letter to Phu last year.

Edward A. Potts, an associate dean at the law school, says no proposal will be made.

"It's a lot more than just writing a proposal," said Potts this week. "It's a question of space problems. Then you have to have fulltime faculty member to supervise the program. And they would presumably need special course offerings."

"I thought it was pretty crummy of GW not to do it," says Jill McLean, former director of the legal assistant program at GW. McLean, who left the program last September, contends that the Vietnamese would not need a special program.

But Potts says it would not be that easy. Because there are already 50 students in comparative law programs, "we've gone just about as far as we can go. We're really not that cold-blooded over here. We're just in a position of limited resources."

But Phu and the other former lawyers have a letter Potts wrote to HEW administrator Holman two years ago, stating, "willingness to accept up to five Vietnamese lawyers for the comparative law program." The Vietnamese are upset the GW would not write a proposal for at least those five.

"I think it is not very logical," says Phu.

Phu is the patriarch of the local lawyers who meet in his North Arlington apartment every month to study law and plan strategy. He also is a link between the refugee community and the American legal system. He works in Arlington both for a private law firm and the county's Legal Aid office as a researcher, interpreter and symbol of reassurance to his countrymen.

" the Indochinese are reluctant to go to a law firm which does not have an Indochinese lawyer or employe," says Phu. "When they are faced with legal problems, their first reaction is to try and hide them or find an arrangement according to Oriental tradition. Often, these solutions are more harmful than beneficial."

Like most of the lawyers in the association, Phu came to the United States in 1975 when Saigon fell. But one of the former lawyers, Ngoc Anh Thi Pho, 38, arrived just last, year.

"I am a boat person," says Pho, one of two women in the legal-assistant program. Pho spent seven months in a Vietnamese prison with her 10-year-old son after she was caught in her second attempt to escape. On her fifth attempt, she led 21 relatives and former students on an ocean crossing to Malaysia in a homemade boat.

Becoming a lawyer in America, says Pho, should not be so difficult a trip.