Some local law firms are taking a second look at business in Washington and deciding that maybe clients don't always need a lawyer to handle their problems.

In fact, several firms have decided that nonlawyers--sometimes called "laypersons" by the legal crowd--can do some things, such as lobbying, as well as lawyers can and maybe even better.

As a result, several local firms have begun to break with tradition and are hiring nonlawyers on a full-time basis as lobbyists or regulatory experts. Some are even putting nonlawyers on their letterheads, though they are careful to note the lack of a law degree, lest they run afoul of the legal profession's ethics code.

The 22-lawyer firm of Heron, Burchette, Ruckert & Rothwell, which represents numerous agricultural companies, including Sunkist Growers Inc., began using nonlawyers three years ago and now boasts a four-person lobbying operation headed by former Reagan campaign press secretary James Lake. "Here in Washington . . . many cases don't require a lawyer," says partner Julian Heron. "That's something the bar doesn't like to hear, but there are plenty of people who are just as smart as lawyers, who can do a good job and even better.

"There are lots of people who just don't like lawyers. For valid and invalid reasons, there are people who prefer to work with nonlawyers. I know that's heresy for a lawyer to say, but it's true," attorney Heron adds.

Attorney Thomas F. Shannon says using nonlawyers also is cheaper for the clients. Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott, a 45-lawyer firm with a substantial international trade practice, began hiring nonattorneys two years ago and now has three on the staff.

The nonlawyers, who prepare testimony, cover hearings and lobby on Capitol Hill, "do the job as well if not better," Shannon says, adding that hourly rates are "considerably less" than for lawyers, resulting in savings to clients of about 20 percent.

One veteran lawyer and observer of the local legal scene, who asked not to be identified, says the trend to nonlawyer lobbyists reflects the changing nature of both the lobbying and legal business in Washington.

"Years ago, lobbying was simply a matter of access to congressmen," not substantive expertise, that lawyer says. But in the last 20 years, with increasing regulation and more complex legislation, businesses began to feel that lawyers were needed to handle the substantive and legal issues.

The problem for many Washington firms, he says, especially the small and midsized firms, is that while they had the "substance pretty well taken care of, they've been finding out they didn't have the access, and you have to have both."

Several lobbyists working with lawyers agree, adding that the benefits to both groups are substantial.

"I didn't fully appreciate it," says Lake, but working with lawyers "gives me an edge." Lake, who had his own lobbying firm before teaming up with Heron, Burchette, Rucker & Rothwell, says lawyers bring a "different experience and expertise and perspective to a problem."

"When you add the legal discipline you add to strategy development" in trying to resolve a client's problem, Lake says. "The legal perspective gives us nonlawyers added tools."

Law firms such as 92-lawyer Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin, looking to beef up their lobbying capacity, are trying to find the best people they can, whether or not those people have law degrees. That firm hired lobbyist William T. Murphy Jr. to head its legislative department.

"We wanted to get the best legislative man we could find; that is not necessarily a lawyer's job," says partner David I. Shapiro. "A person who is an expert in legislation is not necessarily a lawyer."

Michael R. McLeod, a partner in Davis & McLeod, agrees. "You can hire a young law school graduate to do the same job," McLeod says. "But if you can get a seasoned veteran of Capitol Hill, you can do a better job." Davis & McLeod has one nonlawyer who lobbies for one of its chief clients, the American Association of Crop Insurers.

One advantage to hiring nonlawyers, some firms point out, is that there is no feuding over making them partners in the firms, because the legal profession's canons of ethics prohibit such linkages. The nonlawyers are considered by most as in-house professionals, usually paid a regular salary.

Several lawyers describe the latest trend as the result of an increasingly competitive market that is pushing firms to expand the services they offer clients--a move to have what some call "full-service lawyering."

Arthur Lazarus Jr., a partner in Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Kampelman, says the 78-lawyer firm's recent hiring of lobbyist Suzan Shown Harjo was "an excellent way to broaden our representation of our clients." The firm represents several Indian tribes, Lazarus says, and hiring Harjo, a veteran lobbyist and a Cheyenne, "seemed like a perfect fit."

Jim Tozzi, former Office of Management and Budget deputy administrator, heads a group of three full-time and three part-time economists--all "former OMB types," he says--who teamed up earlier this year with 30-lawyer Beveridge & Diamond.

"Washington law is now more interdisciplinary," Tozzi says. "So many cases of law are dealing with competitive impacts and costs of rules" and other economic matters.

Tozzi's group, which also has its own clients, helps the law firm's clients in dealing with regulatory agencies and putting together joint ventures for overseas clients, including two provinces in the People's Republic of China.

Like other specialists, Tozzi says that being linked with a law firm lets him work on a wide variety of issues, rather than specializing in a narrow area, as most corporation lobbyists do.

Firm partner Henry Diamond says he brought in Tozzi because "he knows as much or more about regulatory affairs than anyone in Washington." Diamond says much of the work firms do for their clients involves making economic arguments and analyses, and that is where Tozzi's group is essential.

Diamond says that "accounting firms got a head start on us" in recognizing the benefits of interdisciplinary teams, enabling them to branch into management and analysis services years ago. The interdisciplinary approach is something law firms are just now getting around to appreciating, he said.

Law firms probably will continue teaming up with nonlawyer lobbyists, accountants and other experts on a partnership arrangement, most observers say, because that is the best way for firms to service--and hold on to--clients.