Virginia's 13,000 practicing lawyers will be required to take eight hours of continuing legal education classes annually beginning next year, officials of the state bar announced yesterday.

Michael J. Rost, deputy executive director of the Virginia Bar Association, said the Virginia Supreme Court approved his group's proposal to require the courses for all active lawyers in Virginia. The court handed down its decision last week.

As part of the annual application for license renewal, lawyers must file a certified statement saying they have taken such a course. The first statement is due by July 1987.

The movement to require continuing legal education has gained momentum in recent years, with Virginia becoming the 18th state to require such courses, said Rost. That is up from two in 1976, according to Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Sheridan, who headed the bar association committee that drew up the state plan.

Nine states, including Maryland, are considering such a requirement, Rost said. The District of Columbia does not require continuing legal education.

The Virginia bar began studying the idea in 1974 and first proposed it to the Supreme Court in 1977, but the proposal was rejected.

Rost said the bar group sought mandatory continuing education to enhance its members' professional skills, provide an opportunity for self-evaluation and maintain the quality of the profession in Virginia.

"The real purpose is to force people away from their desks and practice once a year to become students of the law again," Sheridan said.

The proposal approved by the court calls for the establishment of an oversight committee, to begin work July 1, 1986, to approve continuing education classes and monitor for compliance. Lawyers will not be required to take examinations in their continuing education classes.

While drafting the proposal, Sheridan's committee heard testimony that about a quarter to a third of the practicing lawyers in Virginia take continuing education classes each year. The state bar found 64 percent of members who replied to a mailing would favor requiring such classes, Rost said.

He said the definition of continuing education could be flexible enough to include, for example, an engineering course taken by a patent lawyer.