Back in St. Louis, a woman who ran the neighborhood grocery store frequently advised DeLawrence Beard, then a lanky teen-ager, to become a lawyer. She would be proud of him today.

Beard, 44, has earned two law degrees, worked as a private attorney and a state prosecutor, and is currently the public defender for Montgomery County's indigent residents.

Recently, Beard reached another milestone in his legal career. He was appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes to the Montgomery County District Court, making him the county's first black judge.

Beard, who is scheduled to be sworn in May 7, will fill a District Court vacancy created when Judge Irma Raker was appointed to the Circuit Court. stopped him frequently to offer congratulations as he made some of his last courtroom appearances recently as chief of the nine-attorney public defender's office he has run since 1979.

"I had no long-term plan or desire to become a judge," Beard said as he waited at Bethesda District Court to represent a client charged with a traffic offense. "But I'm looking forward to the job. It will give me a new opportunity to serve and will offer a different kind of challenge."

In his nine-year career in law, Beard seems to have touched all of the right bases.

He was a law clerk for the Chevy Chase firm of Dukes, Troese, Mann and Wilson for a year before taking a job in 1974 as an assistant state's attorney for Montgomery County. Five years after he took that position, he was appointed Montgomery public defender. Beard also was the first black appointed to the job, in which he and his staff represent the county's poor.

Although Beard said he believes job qualifications, and not race, should be the chief element behind any appointment, he said the presence of a "minority person" can have positive results in some positions.

"The 'system' must always have the appearance of fairness," Beard said. "Sometimes the appearance of fairness is just as important as fairness itself.

"Many white people think the primary advantage of having minorities in certain positions is to look good to the minority," he added. "But it's important to the majority to look and see that any qualified person can rise to high positions in our society."

Beard said he has never had a "grand design" for his life.

Born in Okalona, Ark., and later transplanted to St. Louis, Beard was one of five children who grew up in a working-class home. His father earned low wages as a boilermaker for a railroad.

As a youngster, he delivered newspapers to earn spending money. In high school, he worked part time as a checkout clerk at a corner grocery store. In college he worked in a science laboratory on campus during the week and worked long hours on weekends cleaning up a hospital delivery room after babies were born.

Between high school and college, Beard served two years in the Navy, cruising the Mediterranean on an aircraft carrier, and worked as an electrical and radio mechanic for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Co.

By the time he enrolled in college at age 22, Beard said he was anxious to make the best of the experience.

"I kept a rather strict work and study schedule when I was in college," said Beard. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound attorney said he played basketball in high school but didn't continue with sports in college. He also "didn't spend a lot of time going to hops or dances. I was either working or studying."

After he graduated from the University of Missouri, Beard decided to study law "primarily because I liked the idea of trying cases."

Beard said he came to Washington in 1965 to work for the International Business Machines Corp. as a marketing representative. While still employed there, he attended law school at night at the University of Baltimore.

He graduated from the University of Baltimore in 1970 and earned a law degree seven years later at Georgetown University.

While he was a law student and she was still a student at the Howard University Medical School, Beard and his wife, Lillian, now a pediatrician with a private practice in the District, were married.

Beard, whose income will rise July 1 from his current salary of $41,400 to $50,500, lives in Potomac, where he and Lillian bought their five-bedroom home in the early 1970s, when the interest rates were a bargain at 7 1/2 percent.

As a judge, Beard said he does not expect to have a lot of spare time.

"I understand you sometimes have to take some of the work home with you," he said. When he has a few extra moments now, Beard says he enjoys swimming, jogging and occasional at-home jazz concerts on his flute.