Out-of-state lawyers who want to practice part time in Virginia have a full-time task ahead: passing the state's bar examination.

The Supreme Court refused yesterday to consider arguments by Ronald L. Goldfarb, an Alexandria resident and lawyer who practices in the District of Columbia and wanted to represent clients in Virginia without taking the bar exam.

The action upheld a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond that the policy strikes a reasonable balance between the public's access to legal services and the need to ensure that attorneys are competent.

Under the policy, experienced lawyers licensed elsewhere are permitted to practice full time -- but not part time -- in Virginia without taking the examination.

The policy was criticized yesterday by the Public Citizen Litigation Group, a District-based organization founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader that represented Goldfarb. The group described the policy as a barrier to hiring qualified lawyers.

"It makes no sense to say you're free to practice . . . on a full-time basis but not a part-time basis," said Cornish F. Hitchcock, a lawyer for the Litigation Group. Hitchcock argued that the policy amounts to economic protectionism for Virginia attorneys.

"I don't think the public interest has been all that bashed," countered Sam Clifton, executive director of the Virginia State Bar, an arm of the Virginia Supreme Court that enforces attorney discipline. "C'est la guerre."

Clifton noted that under a reciprocity agreement between Virginia and the District, Goldfarb can forgo the bar examination if he is willing to practice full time in Virginia. "He wants it both ways," Clifton said.

Goldfarb, who specializes in representing writers, asked to join the Virginia bar in January 1983 without taking the bar exam. After his request was rejected, he sued, but the complaint was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. in Alexandria, and the 4th Circuit upheld Bryan.

The appeals court said Goldfarb found "unattractive" a Virginia provision that permits an out-of-state lawyer to appear in court on a case-by-case basis if he or she is accompanied by a local lawyer.

"It's ridiculous to have the meter running at $100 an hour, or whatever, to have an extra lawyer sit in the courtroom taking up space," said Hitchcock.

The Virginia bar exam takes two days and covers 15 to 20 topics, including "a lot of subjects that many lawyers haven't bumped into since law school," Hitchcock said. He said most applicants study four or five nights a week plus Saturdays for six weeks to prepare for the exam.

Hitchcock said Maryland requires that applicants pass a three-hour "practitioner's exam" testing knowledge of local legal rules, "which makes more sense."