Washington's legal establishment yesterday unleashed some of its biggest guns and asked the D.C. Court appeals to preserve the D.C. Bar's wide range of public service activities despite the expressed wishes of a majority of its members.

Attorneys from the city's most prestigious law firms appeared at the day-long hearing asking that the judges overturn the results of a recent membership referendum in which lawyers voted, 6,721 to 5,189, to prohibit the bar from using its nearly $2 million in annual dues for such activities as lawyer referral services far the poor, continuing legal education projects and bar publications.

"This is not a trade, it's a privileged profession," said John W. Douglas, a leading lawyer with the city's largest law firm, Covington and burling. "And those privileges carry with them an obligation" to carry on public service activities.

Meanwhile, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Dodell, an attorney acting as "unofficial spokesman" for the majority of the city's lawyers seeking to limit the use of the bar's dues, told the packed courtroom that it was "inappropriate for this court to substitute its judgement" over the wishes of a substantial majority of lawyers who in December voted to limit the bar's activities to registration and disciplinary matters.

The nine judges of the city's highest tribunal will be the final arbiters of a dispute that has divided the legal community here. The court created the D.C. Bar and all 26,000 lawyers who practice in the city must belong to it. The issue, as painted by a parade of lawyers and community leaders, is whether lawyers have any broad legal responsibility to serve the community at large.

Some angry bar members, including Dodell, contend that the bar leadership is using "scare tactics" by claiming that all public service functions will grind to a halt unless the referendum is over-turned.

Dodell emphasized that the referendum would in no way restrict the bar from continuing activities such as publishing a professional magazine and supporting a citizens' advisory committee, but that members should not be forced to pay for those functions.

Dodell said the activities could continue, but should be paid for from strictly voluntary contributions. Bar dues currently are $65 a year, but would be roughly halved if the bar's activities are curtailed.

James J. Bierbower, president-elect of the D.C. Bar, told the judges he is confident that public-service activities can proceed with voluntary dues.

Douglas said that the referendum "conflicted with the basic purpose of the bar as set down by this court (in 1972).The changes would emasculate the bar."

He said it would be unwise for the bar to discontinue its activities and "think maybe somewhere, somehow, someone else will pick up the slack." Douglas said that opponents of the public service work had taken a "meat ax" and not a "scalpel" to redress their grievances.

Two of the judges, however, seemed sympathetic to the majority position in the referendum. Judge Frank Q. Nebeker said that when the Court of Appeals created the bar, "I don't recall having in mind . . . the vast activities of the present bar."

Judge George R. Gallagher said he is concerned that the appellate court did not play enough of a role in supervising the bar's leadership. "The part that concerns me is that the bar takes on political stances and legislative issue," he said.

Beside the 49 speakers who signed up to appear before the court yesterday, 120 letters were received by the court judges, including the former Chief Judge of D.C. Superior Court, Harold H. Greene, urging the court to preserve the bar's present activities.

Under a previous Appeals Court order, the bar's public service activities may continue, pending a final decision by the court, which is acting under its power to regulate activities of the bar.