Maryland lawyers were given a boost in the final hours of the General Assembly--one bill that would have reduced lawyers' fees was killed and another that may increase them was passed.

By a split 4-to-4 vote, the Senate Judicial Committee defeated a probate bill that proponents said could have saved consumers thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The bill, introduced by Del. Stuart Bainum (D-Montgomery), would have eliminated the conventional percentage formula many lawyers use to determine fees for settling an estate.

Under current law, a "personal representative" of the deceased--usually a lawyer, but not always--can charge up to 10 percent of the first $20,000 of an estate and 4 percent of the amount above that.

In addition to eliminating the fee formula, Bainum's bill would have allowed the court to ask lawyers to disclose the amount of time spent on the estate. The court must approve legal fees in probate cases.

The legislation passed the House last week by a 110-to-1 vote. It was the first time in six years that the proposal made it out of a legislative committee.

Similar legislation was enacted in the District of Columbia this year.

Also, on the last day of the session, the Senate approved legislation to require married couples in uncontested divorces to appear before a court master.

That legislation reverses a Court of Appeals ruling, effective Jan. 1, that allowed couples in uncontested divorces simply to file written documents in court.

Proponents of the legislation argued that the court ruling would turn Maryland into a mail-order divorce state.

Opponents said the legislation would cost couples a minimum of $200 in legal fees.

"It wasn't too good a year for the consumer," concluded a weary Bainum, "but it was a great year for lawyers."