BERT LANCE, as difficult to believe as it may seem for those who came to know his hulking presence in Washington, was not the center of attention for the first seven weeks of his criminal trial in Atlanta.

Instead, the focus was on the hundreds of thousands of documents the government intended to use as evidence against former U.S. budget director Lance in the complicated banking fraud case. Sometimes sifting through pages one-by-one, the prosecution and defense argued over the accuracy of the material.

It usually takes one of three elements -- a surprisingly unprepared prosecution, a stubborn defense, or an overly cautious judge fearful of reversal -- to allow such tedious, usually routine proceedings to occupy a jury's time for seven weeks.

One the 21st floor of the new Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta, where Lance is on trial, you can find all three.

Mix in with that a case whose basic premise is weak, and acquittals often follow.

The case against Lance and three codefendants is complex. It details a life of wheeling-and-dealing, mainly by Lance, and allegations that the four men violated U.S. banking laws to obtain 383 loans from four financial institutions in an intricate conspiracy that began in 1970 and continued well after Lance left the Carter administration under press and congressional fire.

There are 33 separate criminal counts in the 71-page document, and it contains phrases describing the actions of Lance and his friends as showing a "reckless disregard for the safety of the banks" and self-dealing with their own banks when there was "no reasonable expectation of repayment."

In their more candid moments, Lance's defense team might admit to practically all of the facts outlined in the government's case.

But, they scream loudly, Lance and the others committed no crimes.

Actually, they say, Lance's liberal loan policies -- and they were liberal, especially to himself, his wife LaBelle, his son David, and other family members who received about $1 million with little or no documentation -- applied to virtually everyone Lance confronted.

The defense lawyers say they are going to bring in farmers, small businessmen and parents of students from across northern Georgia who will testfy Lance gave them money with the same ease when they needed a new piece of equipment, support for growth, or college loans for their children.

Lance's defense attorney said during his opening statement that Lance's bank practices "turned sharecroppers into farmers," a comment that earned him a rebuke from the judge, who noted that there was a sharecropper on the jury.

However self-serving that might seem for the defense until the witnesses actually testify, it is well known that small-town bankers seldom follow every rule in the thousands of pages with people they know in the community.

The prosecution says, however, that Lance went too far and was his own favorite customer -- that he was a mastermind of fraud who used his federally chartered institution as a personal piggybank and hid questionable loans when banking examiners came calling.

That's easy for you to say, the defense told the government. Now prove it.

When the government started presenting its case, it tried to introduce reams of banking records it had obtained during its lengthy investigation of the Lance financial picture. Many were copies, some were copies of copies, others were copies of copies of copies, and so on.

The defense called them unreadable, and wanted more readable -- such as the originals.

The chief prosecutor said he did not have the originals because he felt the banks needed them and evidence rules allow the use of copies in most instances anyway unless there is a question as to their authenticity.

Other prosecutors who have handled complex cases said that technique is understandable during a long investigation when copies are good enough, but that when the trial actually starts, a well-prepared prosecutor should have the originals on hand to avoid any possible defense question over a document's authenticity.

The prosecutor apparently did not anticipate that problem. The Lance trial has not been the most congenial in terms of prosecutor-defense relationships.

So the defense then exercised its prerogative of making the government account for the legibility and authenticity of virtually each piece of paper. That might legitimately have taken two or three weeks, according to attorneys familiar with so-called "documentary evidence" cases.

No way. Enter U.S. District Judge Charles A. Moye Jr., who has said he is going to cross every "t" and dot every "i" and "try this case only once."

Moye appears to think that is done by becoming a passive observer in the courtroom. At one point, when the prosecutor and the main defense attorney were drowning out each other's voices with simultaneous objections and arguments, Moye responded by burying his head in his hands.

Moye also has set a less-than-strenuous trial schedule. He starts at 10 a.m. each day, and ends at 4:30 p.m. -- with no weekend sessions, but with copious recesses (including one called because "it might start snowing," recalls one attorney). He appears to be accommodating the defendants and the nonsequestered jury, whose members live away from Atlanta for the most part, even to the extent of holding trial for only four days a week for the first six weeks. He also seems to be postponing evidentiary rulings as long as possible.

As a result, the Bert Lance trial is becoming the longest running soap opera in Atlanta -- at least for a very attentive, note-taking jury that could not possibly be ignoring the oft-surfacing, deep-seated bitterness between the prosecution and defense.

So far, the trial has already seen the deaths of the fathers of Lance, an FBI agent and a prosecutor; the birth of a child to a defendant's wife; the heart attack of one witness, and the official dedication of the new courthouse building in which it is being tried.

At that dedication, several Georgia politicians -- the Atlanta mayor, the Georgia governor, and U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge, among others -- spoke from a platform.

Bert and LaBelle Lance and two of their sons leaned against a nearby wall, as if they were waiting in the wings in hopes of taking the stage again themselves.

The jury won't get the case for several more weeks or even months, and by then the government's case -- which began with a strong opening statement before it sagged in paperwork -- may have solidified. After deliberating, the jury members may honestly believe the actions of Lance and the others violated federal criminal laws, a decision they could legitimately reach.

It might be, though, that any conviction of Lance and his friends won't be a conviction of four possibly shady, small-town bankers.

Instead, it might be a shot heard around the small-town banking world -- the latest of several changes, necessary or not, in the small-town economic system that will affect banking customers as well as officials like Bert Lance.

President Carter has appointed Vincent H. Cohen to the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, which oversees the conduct of the city's judges. Cohen replaces Henry Berliner Jr. . . . Christine E. Carnavos formerly of Lawler, Kent and Eisenberg, has joined the Washington office of Diebold and Millonzi . . . Terrence Adamson, former chief flack at the Justice Department for former Attorney general Griffin Bell, will open the Washington office of the Atlanta firm of Hansell, Post Brandon and Dorsey next month . . . Friends of the late Stuart Stiller, one of the town's best-liked young lawyers who died in an automobile accident last August, will gather at The Palm Restaurant next Sunday night (March 16) to announce the first recipent of a new Georgetown Law Center fellowship in his name.