A NASTY -- AND RARE -- squabble between lawyers over $1 million in legal fees has led to a federal judge's finding that a Washington law firm's conduct was "inexcusable" in the matter.

The harsh language was directed at the local firm of Cole and Groner, which had refused to turn over half the fees it had collected in a case -- as promised -- to the California lawyer who had sent it the business. U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Flannery ruled that the firm breached its contract with West Coast lawyer Earl C. Berger when it neglected to get his written consent before settling the amount of legal fees in a massive class-action lawsuit.

Flannery ordered the local firm to make good on its promise that Berger would get at least half the money; he set another hearing to determine whether Berger may collect even more in damages because of Cole and Groner's conduct.

As might be expected in a case that involved a decade of litigation and more than $1 million in fees, the matter is extremely complex. In a nutshell, here's what happened:

For 18 years, Berger had represented a group of overseas teachers for the Defense Department, trying to get them the same salary they would have received in the United States. He had filed three unsuccessful lawsuits and did a little lobbying, before his clients asked him in 1970 to try yet another lawsuit.

He retained Cole and Groner to actually pursue the suit here, with an agreement that he and the firm would split any fees that were recovered right down the middle. The firm -- headed by Alan Y. Cole and Isaac N Groner, two former clerks to the U.S. Supreme Court -- is a well-established Washington firm.

Cole and Grover won the case, clearing the way for at least $55 million in back pay for the overseas teachers. On its own, Cole and Groner agreed with the U.S. government in 1975 to accept 2 percent of that figure as its fee.

Berger, meanwhile, had a longstanding agreement with the teachers, under which he would get 25 percent of whatever they won -- or more than $13 million in this case. Whatever the amount, he asked that the issue be reopened so he could at least participate in the final decision. But Cole and Groner said his objection violated another provision of their contract -- one that gave the Washington firm control of the litigation.

Because of Berger's alleged breach, Cole and Groner did not give him a penny. Berger then filed the suit that led to Flannery's ruling.

Repeatedly stressing that the contract called for Berger's written consent to any settlement in the case, Flannery said it was clear that Cole and Groner had been wrong.

He rejected the firm's argument that a 25 percent fee settlement would have been "unconscionable," saying the argument was irrelevant since Berger had not been able to participate in the settlement discussions at all.

Cole and Groner estimated that the 2 percent figure translated to an hourly rate for its work of between $120 and $170, which it said was high enough. Flannery said that no matter how long Cole and Groner had worked on the case, Berger "had worked on the teachers' cause for 20 years without recompense of any kind" and clearly had a say in the amount of the final award.

Berger, Flannery added, deserved his "due reward."

The next step in the case, according to Berger's attorney, Richard Ben-Veniste, is to seek damages in the case.

Whatever Berger's "due reward" though, he may not end up $500,000 richer. It seems Berger himself was sued in California a few years back, and a judge ordered him to pay $600,000 in damages in a malicious prosecution suit. That ruling is now on appeal in California.

Washington attorneys don't have to worry about getting Disbarred -- or even getting a snippy little secret letter of admonition in the mail -- if they get convicted of marijuana possession.

That is because the D. C. Bar's board of professional responsibility has recently reaffirmed a 1973 policy decision by the bar disciplinary committee that the crime of marijuana possession "does not warrant the sending of an admonition," much less disbarment.

The restatement of bar policy came in a case in which a mercifully unnamed attorney pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana that police had found in his home. According to undisputed facts in the case, the grass was brought there by a friend. A little while later, a female acquaintance of the attorney brought the police over an unrelated "domestic" dispute, and the cops found the dope.

So, attorneys puffing pot can breathe more easily -- though they still may cough a lot.

One of the more humiliating aspects of law school -- the Socratic method of teaching -- has entered the computer age.

Georgetown University Law Center students are now learning how to argue points of law from a computer that "talks" back to them -- even responding with questions indicating that the student's answer was wrong, when in fact it was right, in the traditional Socratic technique.

The computer, programmed to discuss or criticize predictable right or wrong student answers, is being used in a civil procedure class at Georgetown. It requires yes, no or multiple-choice answers, but also gives students an opportunity to type into a terminal a brief defense of an answer or criticism of the computer's position.

In "Paper Chase," the television series about law school life, John Houseman played the tyrannical Harvard Law School professor. Maybe next will be a series about Georgetown, starring R2D2, the Star Wars robot, as the teacher.

About 500 attorneys and law students wanting to learn the ins and outs of criminal practice in the District are expected to attend this year's Criminal Practice Institute at Georgetown University Law Center on April 11-12.The annual event is sponsored by the young lawyers' section of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and will include workshops and demonstrations on all phases of criminal law -- with a new emphasis this year on defending persons accused of white-collar crime. The list of speakers reads like a roll-call of the city's top defense attorneys.

Robert J. Millstone, former associate director of the division of market regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has become a partner in the Washington office of Baskin and Sears, a firm with offices in several states. Two other attorneys, Herbert Alan Dubin and William P. Sullivan, also have joined the firm in Washington. . . . Nelson W. Rupp Jr., former senior assistant state's attorney and former assistant public defender for Montgomery County, and Seabrook, Md., attorney Charles A. Straw have joined the Kensington firm of Staley, Prescott and Ballman. . . . The firm of Price, Grove, Engelberg, Fried and Gross has been renamed Grove, Engelberg and Gross with the departure of Robert M. Price and Alfred S. Fried . . . . The firm of Robbins and Werdig, Barristers, has been formed by Gerald R. Robbins and Robert M. Werdig Jr., former assistant U.S. attorneys in the criminal and civil divisions, respectively, here. They say the firm's emphasis will be on "preparing and presenting matters before the local tribunals."