A veteran Northern Virginia defense lawyer used a racial epithet during an after-dinner speech last month before the Alexandria Bar Association, drawing an angry protest from a group of the city's black attorneys.

In letters this week to the bar and to lawyer T. Brooke Howard, who drew a standing ovation following his speech, eight black lawyers said they were expressing "collective outrage" at Howard's remark in a speech to the "ostensibly integrated bar."

The 80-year-old Howard, according to several lawyers, was telling "war stories" about the early days of his law practice when he said: "I worked like a dog; hell, I worked like a nigger."

Barbara Ann Rowan, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in New York who is now in private practice in Alexandria, was attending her first local bar function and was the only black in the audience of more than 100 at the Nov. 18 dinner at Gadsby's Tavern in the city's Old Town section.

"It was not a pleasant welcome to the Alexandria Bar," said Rowan yesterday. "My goodness, I thought I'd stepped into the last century." Rowan, who is also a former director of the Federal Trade Commission, said she remained seated during the standing ovation that followed the speech.

The protest letter to the bar said that although the association's president, members of the board of directors and a U.S. District Court judge were present, ". . . no comment was made then and no response to Mr. Howard's statement has been forthcoming, to date."

Bar President Gordon Peyton said yesterday the association's board, which met on Wednesday, is sending a letter to Rowan expressing the organization's "deep sorrow" at the incident. "We are making a good-faith effort to correct what was obviously a mistake by an old man," Peyton said.

"I have no recollection whatsoever of having made that statement," Howard said yesterday in an interview. "But there is no doubt that it was said. It was a slip of the tongue. I'm as sorry as anybody possibly could be about this."

Howard said he was drafting an apology to Rowan yesterday.

"I'm very, very sorry. I have to keep repeating that," Howard added.