To his fellow lawyers he was a farce. To the judges who heard his pleas he was an irritation, and one fined him for leaving a client literally defenseless.

If Keith Spaulding Jones established a reputation for himself during the year and a half he practiced law in western Virginia courtrooms as one of the worst young lawyers in memory, he had an excuse. The 35-year-old Charlottesville native was no lawyer at all.

Jones' charade, discovered only after some of his checks bounced earlier this year, ahs landed the short, pudgy imposter in jail and created a mammoth legal mess for bona fide lawyers in half-a-dozen local and federal courts.

It has also embarrassed the small, insular legal community here, who accepted Jones at his word and excused his obvious incompetence as a byproduct of contemporary American legal training.

"They all need assistance when they first come out of law school," said Chief Judge Fred Hoback of Roanoke Circuit Court, where Jones illegally represented clients from April 1979 until last February. "They don't give you much practical training in law school."

Jones did in fact graduate from the University of Baltimore Law School in 1973. He was a member of the school's law review and held a coveted position as student assistant to the dean. But he failed to pass the bar exam in Virginia -- a prerequisite for practicing law in the state -- three times.

Despite those failures, and without any other legal certification, Jones was paid to handle at least 100 criminal and civil cases in local and federal courts. Jones was court-appointed counsel in many of those cases, which ranged from grand larceny to driving on an expired license.

Some of his clients are still in jail.

"I have a lot of sympathy for his clients," says Donald Caldwell, the Commonwealth's Attorney for Roanoke City and one of a small army of legal officials trying to sort out the tangle Jones left. "But if he'd been a good lawyer, it would have been really bad. He would have had a lot more cases."

The ease of Jones' deception has prompted the legal community in Virginia to reexamine the judicial system's procedures and safeguards. In the past, some court officials admit, those safeguards have depended more on the honor system than detailed background checks.

"It's obviously somewhat embarrassing to the [Virginia] Bar Association and the courts to have this happen," says John S. Edwards, the U.S. Attorney in Roanoke, who has instituted new rules requiring Virginia's federal court clerks to check new lawyers' credentials.

But the executive director of the Virginia Bar Association, N. Samuel Clifton, concedes that even the best rules can be circumvented.

"No system is foolproof. If someone is hellbent on violating the law, they can do it," says Clifton. "This one just slipped through the damn cracks."

Jones' journey from law school to legal imposter -- with a stop at bankruptcy court along the way -- is not the stuff of romantic novels. After graduation, Jones worked one year as a clerk with a publishing company in Charlottesville, then jumped to an office manager's job with a title insurance company in Petersburg. Three years later, Jones moved to Roanoke, where he managed an office for the Pioneer Virginia Title Agency, a national policy-writing organization with headquarters in California and a small, money-losing operation in Roanoke.

"He was always in some kind of trouble . . . always short of money, behind in his rent and behind in the telephone," says Irvin Cohen, Pioneer's chief executive in Virginia, who remembers Jones as extravagant with his expense acount and argumentative with the agency's clients. "I gave him every benefit of the doubt because he was a sad kid."

Jones' job at Pioneer required no legal skills, but it did carry the title of "house counsel," and it put him in contact with local lawyers. By the time he was laid off in early 1979, Jones had become a familiar face in the legal community, where he was presumed to be an attorney. When he decided to open a law office, no one expressed surprise except his mother.

"I asked him how he could do that, and he said the five years he had qualified him to practice law," said Margaret Jones from her home in Charlottesville. "I had no reason to doubt him."

Jones, the middle-class son of a railroad conductor, told probation officers and judges the same story during his two trials this past year. Virginia law has a provisions that allows attorneys with at least five years' experience in certain states to be admitted to Virginia's bar without passing an exam. But Jones' paralegal jobs did not qualify him for that exemption.

"You had sense enough to know that working five years for a title insurance company didn't entitle you to practice law in Virginia," U.S. District Judge Glen Williams told Jones last month during his trial on one count of making a false statement to federal court officials. "Are you dumb? Are you pleading ignorance?"

"I guess my thoughts were confused," answered Jones, who said he was "filled with shame for the embarrassment I have caused the legal system." He was convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty of five years in prison. But Williams indicated he might reduce that sentence after Jones undergoes a three-month psychiatric examination at a federal prison in Butner, N.C.

During his trial, Jones was described by a former Baltimore law school dean as a "model student." A psychiatrist for the defense testified that Jones had successfully deluded himself into thinking he was certified to practice law.

Other testimony included a report by a probation officer that Jones was regularly using amphetamines in a vain effort to keep up with his failing legal career. The officer testified that Jones admitted he sometimes bartered legal advice for amphetamines.

"It became entirely more than one person could handle," said Jones' mother, who said her son was an epileptic who had been on medication since he was 13."Pressure and stress are not good for him."

Earlier this year, Jones was convicted in Roanoke Circuit Court of three counts of practicing law without a license and sentenced to three years in prison. However, Judge Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. suspended all but 12 months of that sentence on the condition that Jones perform 240 hours of community service and make restitution for legal fees he collected illegally.

Jones' mother has contributed more than $1,000 to a fund to repay fees collected from some of the 26 clients Jones was representing when his charade was uncovered. Many more former clients may be eligible to collect damages. The Virginia Bar Association has a fund to compensate clients defrauded by Virginia attorneys, but ironically, Jones' victims may not qualify.

"Under the present rules, the fund is to reimburse clients of members of the bar," says association executive director Clifton. "It would not apply to those defrauded by people who pretend to be lawyers."

More complex is the issue of Jones' criminal clients who have served time in jail. Six persons Jones represented are still in custody. Three have reportedly decided not to appeal their cases. One convicted felon had five years dropped from his sentence as compensation for being represented by Jones. One client serving a three-year sentence for burglary has been granted a retrial. Another, serving five years for a wounding charge, was denied a retrial.

"There's no telling what potential can of worms is out there," sighs Caldwell, who says Jones' records are so sloppy and incomplete it may be impossible to compile a complete list of his victims.

Jones' courtroom performances, had as some of them were did not unmask him. Two months after Jones filed for personal bankruptcy, a few bounced checks landed on the desks of local commonwealth's attorneys. An inquiry to the lawyers' District Ethics Committee was forwarded to state bar headquarters in Richmond. No Keith Spaulding Jones was on file.

When the charade became public, two Roanoke attorneys had particular cause to wince. In April 1979, Leon Kytchen and Frank Perkinson, respected veteran attorneys, had signed an application Jones made to practice law in Virginia's federal court. Both had seen Jones in Roanoke Circuit Court and attested to his "good character and ethical conduct."

"It's caused me some internal embarrassment," says Perkinson, who admits he has taken some ribbing from colleagues. "It doesn't say in there, 'I know this man has passed the Virginia state bar.' It was not a question as to his competence as an attorney."

Tommy Joe Williams, a Roanoke attorney appointed by the court to sort out Jones' files and contact his active clinets, sees the situation with a historical perspective.

"Lawyers do not enjoy a great reputation anyway," says Williams. "Did you read Shakespeare . . . where they say, 'First thing, let's kill all the lawyers?' It's always been that way. It still is."

Roanoke lawyers last week could only remember one legal victory by Jones during his short, descending career. Last year, Jones persuaded a local judge to change a high school band member's music grade from F to B in a case that briefly captured local attention.

"Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while," said a local attorney. But the lawyer who reprsented the school system in the losing battle, Harry W. Garrett, a former commonwealth's attorney with a reputation for humor and legal skill, refused to blame blind luck.

"I've been beaten by worse," Garrett said.