Shortly before inspectors from the American Bar Association visited Antioch Law School last month, about 100 students, faculty and administrators turned out on a Saturday to clean and paint the school.

The flower beds by the front door were replanted.

Some students said they shaved for the inspectors' visit. Several staff members wore woolen trousers instead of their usual blue jeans.

"I've never seen a school pull together like this one," said Rhonda Dahlman, chairman of the student government. "But Antioch isn't just a school. It stands for a philosophy, and we're committed to that."

The innovative school at 2633 16th St. NW, which operates as a "public-interest law firm" while training new lawyers, has been threatened by the ABA with loss of accreditation after a highly critical inspection report last year.

According to the report, Antioch's academic program is of "limited rigor and [has] few quality checks." The school's funding, the report said, is "inadequate."

In January, according to a member of Antioch's board of governors, the ABA sent a letter, requiring the law school to show-cause why its accreditation should not be revoked.

Washington attorney Joseph L. Rauh Jr. said the ABA's show-cause order instructs Antioch officials to appear at a hearing in May. Rauh, a member of the law school's governing board, said the specific criticisms contained in the letter are based on the 43-page evaluation report issued last year.

ABA approval is necessary for graduates of a law school to take the bar exam and practice law in nearly all states and the District.

Although officials of the ABA and Antioch refused to discuss the letter, students said Dean Isaac C. Hunt Jr. told them about it at an open forum. The student newsletter, "The Rumor Mill," has reported a major effort to save the school, uniting faculty, students and deans who often have been at odds since Antioch Law opened in 1972. The school's first codeans, Edgar and Jean Cahn, were fired in 1980 in a dispute over funds.

"We may not be the best law school in the country," said Francis Serra, an editor of the newsletter. "But it is the best for the students here . . . . If it weren't for Antioch, I probably wouldn't be in law school at all. The fact is the law is so dry in the abstract. But here I'm dealing with real people."

Founded as an "alternative" to traditional law schools, Antioch requires students to earn about a third of their credits handling cases in legal clinics. It is a branch of Antioch University, whose main campus is at Yellow Springs, Ohio.

"I believe deeply in the idea of a law school to train public-interest lawyers," Rauh said, "and it would be a national tragedy if the ABA were to choke off this school. We at Antioch have to make improvements and they have to make allowances for the unique role of the school."

He added: "What you have here are lawyers for the establishment, especially the corporate establishment, deciding whether a law school for poor people can continue. That raises a very serious problem."

Frederick R. Franklin, staff director of the ABA section on legal education, declined to comment on Rauh's remarks. He said the show cause order is a rare action by the ABA and that the last time a law school lost accreditation was in the 1930s.

However, the evaluation report said that to meet its self-proclaimed goals of aiding the poor and educating disadvantaged students, Antioch probably needs programs and resources "well beyond those of 'ordinary' law schools." Instead, the report said, the school often has less.

Antioch "admits a fairly large number of students with fairly low academic credentials," the report said, "provides instruction with a relatively high student-faculty ratio, provides only very limited remedial assistance to most students . . . , dismisses relatively few students for academic reasons, and finds a large number of students failing the bar exam at least once."

The evaluation was written by a team of four law school professors, headed by Steven R. Smith, of the University of Louisville. The ABA's Franklin said the document was confidential. However, portions of it were published last fall by the National Law Journal, a weekly newspaper. A full copy was obtained recently by The Washington Post.

"There has obviously been a lot of turmoil here," said Hunt, Antioch's dean for the past two years. "But we think the institution is clearly on the upswing."

Hunt acknowledged that Antioch has "not adhered to our academic standards as closely as we might have," but he said that standards "are being enforced now." Hunt said that 25 students have been dismissed for academic reasons since November 1983.

This year the law school has 454 students -- down from 510 a year ago. About half of them are women and 31 percent are members of minority groups, though that proportion has dropped from 37 percent several years ago. Tuition is $6,900 a year.

Among the "concerns" about Antioch listed in the ABA evaluation report were the following:

* "Many classes at the school appeared to lack intellectual stimulation, rigor and challenge."

* Faculty salaries are the lowest for any ABA-approved law school, except in Puerto Rico. Last year the median for full-time faculty at Antioch was $33,556, compared to the national median of $46,000.

The average salary at Washington's five other law schools is $53,500, and ranges from $62,200 at Georgetown to $46,400 at Howard.

* Antioch "has a history of a very low pass rate on bar examinations." No recent data was available for Antioch graduates who took the D.C. bar exam, but results for the winter of 1983 show that only 20 percent of Antioch graduates taking the tests passed the bar exam in Maryland, 29 percent in Virginia, and 44 percent in New York.

On Maryland's winter 1984 exam, 44 percent of Antioch graduates passed, but that was still well below the overall pass rate of 67 percent. The pass rates for other schools on this exam include: Georgetown and George Washington, both 85 percent; American University, 73 percent; University of Baltimore, 71 percent; University of Maryland, 62 percent; and Howard, 13 percent.

* Because many students are needy and financial aid limited, "it was clear . . . that a number of students are working [at outside jobs] in excess of the [20 hours per week] permitted by ABA standards. Attendance [in class] does not appear to be recorded routinely."

The student-faculty ratio was about 35-1, which is "very high for any school and extremely high given the nature of the Antioch program."

In addition, the report criticized the school for not granting tenure, and said its library, physical facilities, and recordkeeping were inadequate.

The report also noted that Antioch is "still rather heavily dependent on government grants for its basic program." Last year these funds -- from the federal Legal Services Corp. and the District government -- totaled more than $600,000, about a sixth of the budget.

According to the current edition of Barron's "Guide To Law Schools," Antioch is the lowest-ranking accredited school on an index of law school resources, based on enrollment, faculty and library size. The guide book reports that the median score of Antioch's first-year students on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is the fourth lowest -- above the University of Puerto Rico, Texas Southern, and Howard, and tied with Ohio Northern and Oral Roberts.

"Given their entry scores, Antioch students do as well as anybody's on the bar exams," said Professor Thomas J. Mack. "If the University of Chicago had the same crowd of people, their results would be the same as ours. We're going after the students who have traditionally been excluded."

Hunt said Antioch Law has no comprehensive data on the bar exam pass rates or employment of its graduates, but is compiling such information now for the ABA.

"They may not all pass the bar exam the first time," Mack added. "But I'm sure most of them go on to practice the kind of law we hoped they would."

The faculty chairman, W. Edward Morgan, said faculty members are "very happy with their salaries . . . . Money has never been the object of this type of faculty." He suggested that in calculating the student-faculty ratio, the ABA should have included among the faculty Antioch's clinical fellows who do much of the supervision in the legal clinics.

"We have a unique educational experiment," said Antioch University President William M. Birenbaum, "and it has to be seen that way . . . . We're hanging in, man, strong. This school will survive."