More than 350 new law school graduates at George Washington University yesterday heard U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia M. Wald urge them to get involved in bettering what she said critics call an "overlawyered society suffocating on legalisms."

Speaking at commencement exercises at the university's National Law Center, Wald, an appellate judge since 1979, also called on the graduates to work for improvements in the judicial system, such as the creation of better small claims courts and improvements in juvenile justice.

Wald said that in polls, "lawyers sometimes rank with used-car salesmen and garbage collectors" in the eyes of the public and criticism of lawyers is on the rise. "A major challenge for your generation will be to put our legal house in order," she said, citing a recent comment by Harvard President Derek Bok that there was "'far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot.' "

Wald encouraged the would-be lawyers to make their professional lives fuller by deciding early on to seek "some special responsibility, some unheralded cause that can compete for your time, that is worth fighting for, sacrificing for, on occasion even losing a prospective pay client for."