Four years ago, Susan Feinberg arrived in Washington with stars in her eyes. A 28-year-old former cocktail waitress and secretary from Livermore, Calif., who once lived in a tepee in Oregon and milked goats for a living, she had idealistic visions of helping the poor by becoming a lawyer.

This week Feinberg, now 32 and a little wiser, stood with fellow lawyers outside D.C. Superior Court with a sign in her hand, demanding a pay raise for lawyers who represent indigent defendants in the court.

"It's embarrassing to go to law school and end up holding a sign," she said. "I'd like to make enough money to support myself. I can't keep asking my parents for handouts."

Feinberg, who graduated from George Washington University law school last year, said that so far this year, she has made $6,000.

Feinberg is one of about 80 lawyers who regularly take the cases of criminal defendants who are too poor to afford lawyers of their own. Each day about 60 such newly arrested defendants appear in court, from the old woman arrested for carrying a pistol in the Senate, to Bernard Welch, convicted murderer and burglar.

What prompted Feinberg and the other lawyers to stop accepting new cases this week are pay rates set by the city's Criminal Justice Act that haven't changed in 13 years. Feinberg is paid $30 an hour for court appearances and $20 an hour for work out of court.

For years, lawyers who represent the poor in Washington have had a mixed reputation. The CJA system traditionally has attracted not only ambitious young lawyers at the start of their careers, but older hands known as the "Fifth Streeters," because many of them have offices around the courthouse on Fifth Street NW.

Some were considered vultures, eager to make a fast buck at the expense of defendants' rights, who wouldn't recognize their clients if they saw them and who spent much of their time playing poker or drinking whiskey inside the courthouse.

"Some of them would come up so drunk you couldn't talk to them straight," said one veteran official in the U.S. attorney's office.

Most of those lawyers have been chased away by a more vigilant D.C. Bar, and courthouse observers, including many judges, say the quality of CJA lawyers has improved dramatically in recent years.

There are still some veteran lawyers who appear in court each day wearing the same tired old suits with tattered cuffs and broken shoe laces. For others, however, the CJA system is a way station, a place to receive valuable trial experience while making plans for a more lucrative career. It is also a way of retaining, at least for a time, their independence as well as their idealism.

"I didn't want to work for somebody else and sit in an office and do corporate research," said Feinberg, whose office consists of a desk, a telephone answering machine and a set of bookcases in the basement of her rented house in Silver Spring. "I wanted to feel as though I was accomplishing something."

"There's pleasure in being morally indignant," said Karen Dixkoskoff, 29, vice president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association and a strike leader. "I don't want to look back on my life when I'm 75 and say I didn't try to improve things."

Dixkoskoff, a Pittsburgh native, got her first taste of the law in high school when her uncle, a lawyer, represented a member of the Black Panthers.

Later, at Goddard College in Vermont, her chemistry teacher was John Froines, one of the Chicago Seven who went on trial for conspiracy charges in 1968. She was enlisted to help research the case.

A graduate of Antioch Law School here, Dixkoskoff said she left a job as a social worker in Alabama after a rough encounter with local law enforcement authorities reinforced her ambition to become a lawyer.

She returned to Washington with plans for starting an independent practice in criminal law through the CJA program.

"It never occurred to me to work with a law firm. I wanted to be a criminal lawyer," she said. "I didn't know it would be this bad."

For Greg Addison, the attractions of CJA work stem from personal experience as well as from principle. He grew up with seven brothers and sisters in Southeast Washington, dropped out of high school in the 12th grade but completed work for his diploma at night. He entered law school at George Washington University after graduating with a degree in mathematics from Virginia Union University in Richmond.

"I've always been sympathetic to the situation of poor defendants," said Addison, who also is actively involved in the strike. "I've seen police misconduct firsthand. I thought I could come in and save some of these people. I was probably a little naive."

All of the lawyers interviewed are bitter about what they see as official indifference to the pay issue. Their work seldom ends at 5 p.m., they contend, and the rates don't always cover 3 a.m. calls from frustrated clients or weekend visits by defendants' friends.

Feinberg recently was roused from a weekend afternoon of sunbathing in her back yard by the burly acquaintance of a jailed prostitute, who flashed a gold tooth with a diamond inset while insisting that Feinberg do something to help the woman.

"I don't have time to baby-sit them," said Addison of his clients who call him at all hours. "A lot of them just want somebody to talk to."

The monetary limits imposed on their defense work--$400 for preparing and defending misdemeanor cases and $1,000 for felony cases--is also a source of frustration to many of the striking lawyers.

"After a while I got burned out and stopped taking cases. I was ready to move to Florida and go live in the sun," Feinberg said. "When you're talking about constitutional rights, there shouldn't be a limit." CAPTION: Picture 1, SUSAN FEINBERG . . . $6,000 so far this year; Picture 2, GREG ADDISON . . . sympathetic to plight of poor; Picture 3, KAREN DIXKOSKOFF . . . pleasure in being morally indignant