"The school principal called me and told me John had punched another child in the face and thrown a chair through the classroom window," a Southeast mother recalled recently.

Her son, who was then 17, was a good student, a high school basketball star who had not been in trouble before.

The fight started because some other students were harassing him, he said. He was arrested, charged with simple assault and destruction of property and ordered to appear in D.C. Juvenile Court.

His court-appointed lawyer, Irene Lichtman, made arrangements for John to plead guilty to the charges and to have the judge sentence him to perform 75 hours of community service at a local recreation center. When he finished, his records were sealed.

John won a basketball scholarship to the University of Northern Colorado. He is now a senior majoring in political science.

For 20 years as a court-appointed lawyer at the Juvenile Court, Lichtman has tried to keep young people charged with minor crimes out of the city's juvenile jails.

A soft-spoken woman now in her 60s, Lichtman stopped accepting new cases two years ago as she began to prepare for retirement.

Today she goes to the Juvenile Court, on the first floor of D.C. Superior Court at 300 Indiana Ave. NW, once every other month for hearings on the three to four cases she still follows because the youngsters are not yet 18.

It was her belief that if a child or teen-ager had a supportive lawyer, the youngster could be directed out of trouble.

"I always tried to get some responsible person interested in each kid, who would sponsor and follow up on his progress," she said.

"The attention to the child and his plight can produce a productive member of society but it requires time and a lot of hard work," said Lichtman, seated in her upper Northwest home. "Kids are better off in group homes and foster homes than in jail."

She added, "I always felt that detention never did any good. It was always better if a child could have a sponsor, a foster parent or just someone who cared. Most juvenile detention facilities are schools for crime."

During her years at the court she handled about 2,200 cases involving juveniles charged with crime ranging from shoplifting to stabbings. She estimates that 90 percent of them never got in trouble again.

She used to spend 50 to 60 hours a week at the court making regular trips from a makeshift office to the courtrooms where the public is not allowed, to the offices of judges and prosecutors trying to work out bargains to help her clients.

The wife of a dentist, Lichtman went to work in the Juvenile Court first as a volunteer with Jewish Social Services.

She liked it so much that in 1969, when a reorganization of the city's court system allowed volunteers to get paid for their services, she decided to devote her practice to juvenile cases. She became one of about a dozen court-appointed lawyers at the court. Today there are 60 or 70 such lawyers.

They are paid $35 an hour up to a maximum of $900 per case for misdemeanor cases and $1,700 per case for felony cases.

Over the years, Lichtman has acted as teacher, friend and surrogate mother to her clients. Many never learned to pronounce her last name correctly (it's LICKED-mun) and referred to her as "Mrs. Irene."

"She always had one of the heaviest caseloads of any lawyer in town," recalled Julia James, a retired Juvenile Court clerk who for many years was responsible for assigning attorneys in juvenile cases.

"Those lawyers played a very large role in the court's dealings with juveniles," James said. "Irene was one of the few who would even take cases involving neglected and abandoned children."

"When a kid came to trial, she would reach into her own pocketbook to give them lunch money at recess," James said. "She always tried to make sure those children had everything they needed."

Lichtman's clients often got clothing that her own two children, Gerald and Dianne, had outgrown. Believing youngsters needed a chance to assume responsibility, she worked to help them find jobs and even gave them work around her own house when nothing else turned up in order to keep them out of mischief.

"Most of them changed remarkably for the better once they were able to earn some money on their own," Lichtman said. She added that she is saddened by recent cutbacks in programs that she often used as alternatives to keep young offenders out of Cedar Knoll, the city's juvenile detention facility in Laurel.

"Today there is a real lack of facilities that are badly needed," she said, citing cutbacks in the Job Corps and the phasing out of the CETA, a federally funded employment program.

Lichtman began practicing law in Washington in 1941, and was one of the first women admitted to the D.C. Bar. "In those days it was so rare for a woman to pass the exam that they ran a newspaper story on the 13 of us who got in that year," she recalled.

The federal government had a policy of not hiring women lawyers, she said, "because they thought it wasn't seemly for a woman to go out and have a beer with a client after work, and that was considered part of the job." The World War II man shortage changed that, and Lichtman worked as a government lawyer.

After the war, she worked for a private law firm, and then as a volunteer for the Jewish Social Service Agency, through which she was introduced to Juvenile Court.

Lichtman's children are now raising children of their own. Though she still keeps up with her former clients when she can, she now plans to spend more time with her husband, Irving, and her three grandchildren, Brad, Danny and Alexa.

One of her clients, Robert, who lives in Northwest, vividly recalls Lichtman. When he was 11 he was arrested for burglarizing a gas station. Lichtman interceded in his behalf and worked to get him placed in a foster home.

"If it weren't for her I'd most likely have ended up in a pretty bad situation," said Robert, now a high school senior. "I'd really gotten in with a wrong crowd."