A small but elite group of lawyers, including former general counsels to the Defense Department and the CIA, gathered recently in a private dining room at the Metropolitan Club to meet a former assistant counsel in the Justice Department who is now running for mayor, John Ray. The host was a former deputy legal adviser to the State Department, who is on Ray's finance committee.

The 90-minute session netted $1,350 in campaign contributions for Ray, through what one lawyer who was there described as the ancient political ritual of "dragooning your friends" to support your candidate.

In the D.C. legal community, that ancient ritual is suddenly becoming a more familiar ceremony.Lawyers and law firms here have traditionally been more involved in national than local politics. But this year attorneys have contributed at least $126,525--15 percent--of the $841,076 donated to the campaigns of the five major candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor, according to reports filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.

Some say their contributions are just a reflection of support for an old friend. Others say they want to play a part in city politics.

"If you live here you certainly have some obligation to use your resources to make it a better place," said attorney Walter Pozen of Stroock Stroock & Lavan. "Instead of saying, 'Oh, the D.C. government is no damn good,' . . . how about getting involved?"

Patricia Roberts Harris, a lawyer and former Carter administration Cabinet member, has collected $35,380 from lawyers, Ray has received $17,200 from that source and Council member Betty Ann Kane, whose husband, Noel, is a lawyer, has obtained $17,480 from attorneys.

Nonlawyers running for mayor also have done well in legal circles. Mayor Marion Barry has received $36,555 from lawyers and Council member John A. Wilson, $19,910.

Ray and Harris in particular have brought new lawyers into the ranks of those local attorneys who over the years have joined builders, developers, labor unions, bankers and other special interest groups in financing local campaigns in Washington.

Building on her longstanding ties to the city's legal community, Harris obtained 44 percent of the $80,000 she raised in a few weeks from lawyers. Among them: former White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler, former attorney general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, former transportation secretary William T. Coleman Jr., Jill Wine-Banks, former general counsel to the Army, and many of Harris' former assistants at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Local politics may not be the kind of stuff that most of these veterans of national government are accustomed to, and courting lawyers may not yet be a ready solution to campaign financing in Washington.

Experienced observers of Washington's short election history caution that a lawyer's presence at luncheon fundraisers and on contribution lists is not a sure indication of any long-lasting interest in the city's future.

"Anyone who thinks they can raise money to sustain a campaign on the basis of lawyers is going to be stunned," said one experienced fundraiser who is a lawyer.

Most lawyers are good for "nuisance money," he said, in contributions of $100 and $250, not the kind of big money generated by corporations and business and serious fundraisers, which would be more in the $50,000 to $100,000 bracket.

But some attorneys believe that the city's legal community is a natural resource, long untapped by candidates in search of money and talent. And these lawyers predict that as District of Columbia politics mature, political habits will include increasing reliance on this powerful interest group.

About 15,000 nongovernment lawyers here are free to work for partisan political campaigns and all 21,000 local attorneys may contribute to candidates. "We are just six or seven years into our emancipation, and most of us are still in the process of discovering the political process," said trial attorney Robert Cadeaux, a supporter of John Ray.

Harris has racked up an impressive list of contributors from Washington law firms. But her own supporters acknowledge that this initial round of contributions may largely represent an enduring loyalty to Harris that developed through her years with the federal government, in private law practice and in civil rights work.

"The fact is we didn't have to fight to get these contributions. This is a reflection of longstanding recognition," said Henry Hubschman, a lawyer in Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Kampelman, where Harris worked before she joined the Carter administration. Hubschman served as an assistant to Harris when she was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"You call people and you tell them you're helping Pat . . . You say, 'Pat's running and we certainly hope you can help out,' " Hubschman said. After all, he added, there isn't much you need to say to the likes of Lloyd Cutler or the legendary New Deal lawyer James H. Rowe Jr., former law partner to the late Thomas (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran. Cutler and Rowe each gave Harris $1,000.

At Fried Frank, some people came to him to offer help, Hubschman said. In other cases, he spoke with some of his colleagues--once--and ended his pitch by saying, "You will not hear from me again on this subject."

Harris, who is expected to formally begin her campaign April 3, "went to the obvious sources to get money quickly," Hubschman said.

John Ray says he knows that Patricia Harris has ready access to ex-government officials who have returned to private law firms and now are senior partners. When it comes to raising funds in the firms, Ray says "when a partner speaks, people listen."

Ray, a graduate of George Washington University Law Center, says most of his law school and clerkship colleagues are now junior partners at some of the important law firms. "That means they have a little clout, and they can squeeze some contributions out for me," Ray said.

Both Ray and Harris, as lawyers, are counting on their own abilities to motivate support from their fellow professionals.

"The key is trying to generate interest on their part. It's extremely difficult," Ray said, noting that city government politics here must compete for attention with the president, Congress and diplomats.

"Guys at these law firms, they play in another league. In order to get them motivated you have to have a personal relationship with a sufficient number of them," Ray said.

One lawyer that Ray successfully lured back into local politics was Walter Pozen. Pozen, who has worked at the White House and at the Department of Interior, abandoned his efforts for city government in 1972, after a rocky session on the D.C. Board of Elections. Ray, who got to know Pozen during the Kennedy election campaigns, approached him last summer with his thoughts about running for Mayor.

"Why don't you do something for the city, Walter, instead of all those fancy clients?" Pozen said Ray asked him. "I said yes."

Local lawyers whose business links up with city government decision-making in areas like real estate, zoning and construction have traditionally contributed to election campaigns.

Barry, for example, is getting strong support from the law firm of Linowes and Blocher, which has been a premier zoning law firm in the Maryland suburbs and is working to gain a foothold in Washington. Ray, a critic of mandatory no-fault automobile insurance, has received $15,000 in contributions from trial lawyers who fear they will lose business if the legislation is ever passed.

"We've been lobbying very hard to oppose no-fault legislation," said Cadeaux, who is a nominee for president of the Association of Plaintiffs Trial Lawyers in Washington. Cadeaux has donated $2,000--the legal limit--to Ray's campaign.

"John Ray has been . . . in the lead in his views on no-fault," Cadeaux said. "So we have considered him a friend, to use the tacky vernacular of the consumer."

Some lawyers had no sophisticated reasons when asked why they had contributed to a particular campaign.

Harris is a "very dear friend," said attorney Lawrence Simons, a former HUD official, who along with his wife contributed $2,000.

"I have been impressed with her," said Paul Friedman, a partner at the Washington office of White and Case, who with his wife gave $150 to candidate Betty Ann Kane.

To attorney Frank A. Weil, John Ray is an "attractive young man entitled to a chance" so he gave him $250. But Weil admitted he gave more than that to candidate Harris.

"A friend of my father's had a saying," Weil said, explaining why he had supported both candidates:

"Money is like manure. If you leave it piled up in one place, it stinks. If you spread it around, it makes things grow."