With the economy pushing more individuals and companies into debt, business has never been better for Alexandria lawyer Roy B. Zimmerman.

A short, balding man who is constantly dieting to keep his bulging waistline from making his collection of maroon and blue sports coats obsolete, Zimmerman, 50, is acknowledged to be the king of bankruptcy lawyers in the Virginia suburbs.

"When you hear the name Roy Zimmerman you automatically think of bankruptcy law," says Martin A. Gannon, an Alexandria divorce lawyer. "When people come to my office I refer them to Roy because I think he's the best bankruptcy lawyer in town."

A chair in a hearing room at the federal bankruptcy court in Alexandria bears the initials "R. B. Z."--a tribute to Zimmerman's acumen and a rare honor for any lawyer.

Of the 88 business reorganizations filed during the past three years at U.S. District Bankruptcy Court in Alexandria, Zimmerman handled 27 or about 31 percent, according to court records. Zimmerman handles scores of other bankruptcy actions and counts several banks and a former Virginia judge among his clients.

Zimmerman and other bankruptcy specialists are riding the crest of a recessionary wave that has sent bankruptcies soaring nationally. During the past fiscal year, a record 519,063 people filed bankruptcy petitions--a 70 percent increase over fiscal 1980 when 360,957 petitions were filed, according to figures compiled by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. The trend is particularly evident in Virginia where 13,739 cases were filed in 1981, almost twice as many as the combined number of bankruptcies in Maryland and the District.

"They say when the economy goes bad the only people who do well are the bankruptcy lawyers," chuckles Zimmerman in his town house office that is decorated largely with memorabilia from the New York Yankees, his favorite baseball team. It is a desire to "be respected" and not money that the gregarious lawyer from Little Rock says drives him.

One of 16 private lawyers paid between $20 and $1,000 by the Alexandria court to serve as a bankruptcy trustee, Zimmerman says his chair is a fitting tribute for a lawyer who once "spent a lot of time counting flies on garbage cans waiting for business to come in."

After several months with few clients in the early 1960s, Zimmerman was advised by a law school chum that he might find bankruptcy law more to his liking. It is an arcane field that requires an understanding of both federal and state bankruptcy laws, as well as tax, contract and property law. The skills are far different from those of most trial lawyers who distinguish themselves by persuading juries and judges. There are few jury trials in bankruptcy court, and the mark of a good bankruptcy lawyer is mastery over detailed asset, debt and creditor lists--filings that often can amount to hundreds of pages, even in routine cases.

Zimmerman says he "took to bankruptcy law like a duck to water." He and his legal staff systematized the required filings to increase efficiency, and since the early 1970s, when his practice started booming, he has not looked back.

The changing public attitude toward bankruptcy hasn't hurt. "Going bankrupt has become less and less a stigma," says Marilyn Morgan, director of the Consumer Credit Counseling and Educational Service of Alexandria, a group funded by area merchants. "We are seeing more and more people in our offices because interest rates are high and unemployment is hitting a lot of people," she says.

Zimmerman is critical of what he sees as "easy credit" that has sent him many clients. "I don't feel sorry for the credit people at all," he says. "Two or three years ago they were practically forcing credit down peoples' throats. Now with the recession and high interest rates, the ordinary person just can't make it. There're more bankruptcy cases out there right now than you can shake a stick at."

Friends say Zimmerman grosses at least $175,000 a year--not a huge sum compared with the incomes of many of the area's top lawyers in the fields of personal injury, zoning or criminal law. But it is a rarity among bankruptcy lawyers who, practitioners say, seldom make six-figure incomes solely from bankruptcy work.

Zimmerman does not dispute the income estimates, but success is not reflected in his life style. He drives a 1976 Buick he describes as "a clunker," and, like many, says he borrowed money to send his two kids to college.

"I have as much trouble hanging onto money as anybody else," says Zimmerman. "But you have to learn that you don't have to keep spending to keep up with your neighbor. I don't belong to any country clubs and I don't drive a Cadillac. I'm not downing any body that does that. That's just the way I choose to live."

Few of the 500 Washington area lawyers who handle bankruptcies specialize in the field. "Bankruptcy law has been looked on by other lawyers as a less-than-dignified practice," says Samuel M. Greenbaum, who at 65 is the dean of Washington bankruptcy attorneys. He says the field fell into disrepute after Congress held hearings in the late 1930s and found corruption in bankruptcy law practice.

The consumer movement and changes in the laws have changed that image, says Greenbaum. "When I go to seminars on bankruptcy law I see far more lawyers than I used to see 10 or 15 years ago. Now we bankruptcy lawyers are very much sought after."

Zimmerman relishes his role as financial alchemist and those moments when he saves a client from going under. "In most cases, it's a matter of desperation when they call, but I usually can prevent them from losing their property," he says.

That advice can cost about $450 in advance for a consumer bankruptcy and 10 to 20 times that amount for financially troubled businesses. To collect, Zimmerman often has to petition the court to grant his $125-an-hour fee from his client's remaining assests.

"Roy is considered to be somewhat imaginative and ingenious with his legal theories in bankruptcy court," says Alexandria bankruptcy attorney Gordon Peyton. "He lives and breathes the stuff. I've heard Alexandria Bankruptcy Judge Martin V.B. Bostetter say, 'I always learn something from Mr. Zimmerman.' "

The late Alexandria inventor Frazier James came to Zimmerman in the early 1970s with no assests and $300,000 in unpaid loans he had used to develop an automatic bill changer. Zimmerman says he drafted a financial plan to keep creditors at bay and then took the unusual step of asking the bankruptcy judge to auction James' invention.

A syndicate of New York investors bid $450,000 for the bill changer, and James was able to avoid being declared bankrupt until he later became too sick to work, Zimmerman says.

In 1976, during one of the biggest proceedings in the Alexandria bankruptcy court, Zimmerman helped Southern Pacific Communications Co., a California-based subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Co. conglomerate, acquire assets valued at $100 million from Data Transmission Co. for $4.9 million after the McLean computer firm filed for protection under the bankruptcy act.

Weeks earlier, Zimmerman had helped former Falls Church City Judge Vail W. Pischke climb out from under $33.1 million in debts he amassed from investing in motel and land development schemes that turned sour. According to court records, Zimmerman filed a successful adversary proceeding petition against the holders of liens on an Eastern Shore resort in which Pischke held a one-third interest, freeing the judge to sell the property--one of the few sizable assets he had--free and clear of debt.

Zimmermen says it was Bankruptcy Judge Bostetter who gave him an important boost in 1962 when he first made him a trustee in the court. According to court records, Zimmerman received $11,944 for trustee work on 12 cases last year, more than any of the court's other trustees.

Zimmerman dismisses the importance of the fees. "It's good for your reputation," he says of his trustee post. "It helps me stay on top of things."