The District of Columbia Bar decided last week to have its 45,000 members vote on the issue of what -- if anything -- should be done to ease the restrictions imposed by a 1981 referendum that severely curtailed the activities on which the bar could spend its members' dues.

Membership in the D.C. Bar is mandatory for lawyers practicing in the District, with dues at $66 yearly for most active members. In the 1981 referendum, spearheaded by conservative bar members, a majority voted to restrict the activities on which dues could be spent to certain "core functions" such as lawyer registration and discipline.

A report by a special referendum impact committee this year found that the restrictions had affected the bar in "fundamental ways," such as having a "negative impact" on the bar's ability to provide legal services to the poor and causing a "drastic drop in enrollment" in continuing legal education courses.

Five members of the 15-member committee, chaired by Daniel A. Rezneck of Arnold & Porter, dissented from some of those findings, and the committee did not specify what it thought should be done as a result of its conclusions.

The bar's board of governors, at a meeting last week, voted to have that question decided with another referendum on four alternatives this fall.

The first of two intermediate proposals would permit the bar to spend up to $2 per member of dues a year, for a maximum of five years, as "seed money" for programs likely to realize a profit or to break even -- efforts such as continuing legal education programs or publications. It would free the bar to spend dues money to respond to court requests for assistance and do away with the referendum-imposed complications of allocating costs between dues-funded and non-dues-funded activities.

The more far-reaching alternative would do all that and permit the bar to spend up to $5 a year per member of dues money for the bar's public service activities designed to provide legal help to the poor.

Both proposals contemplate permitting the bar to raise dues to fund those efforts but would not affect the dues ceiling of $75 a year.

The D.C. Court of Appeals has the ultimate authority over the local bar, and any changes in the bar's power eventually must be approved by the court.

Bar leaders could have petitioned the court directly to modify the referendum, but they face the prospect of a counterreferendum by members unhappy with the proposed changes.

"Everybody felt that this was the right way to do it," said Robert E. Jordan III of Steptoe & Johnson, who takes over as bar president this month.

The U.S. Court of Appeals here, looking for ways to dispose of cases as quickly as possible, has launched an experimental mediation program for civil cases.

The cases are to be selected at random and sent for mediation to a panel of local lawyers who have volunteered their services. Lawyers must attend the initial mediation session, but the mediators' recommendations will not be binding.

Five other federal appeals courts have mediation programs.

"I don't think that taking 100 or 120 cases to mediation is going to have much impact on the court's backlog," Circuit Executive Karen M. Knab said, "but if we find out through these cases that a case can be mediated successfully in five months, whereas, it takes 10 months or 13 months to have oral argument and an opinion written, we have a very effective mechanism for resolving those disputes that can be resolved that way."

The mediators selected by the court are John H. Pickering, Stephen Ailes, Charles T. Duncan, Milton V. Freeman, Morton Hollander, Charles A. Horsky, Irving Jaffe, Catherine B. Kelly, C. Roger Nelson, Bernard I. Nordlinger and Sidney S. Sachs.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America is fed up with those of its brethren who give the profession a black eye by flocking to accident scenes and soliciting victims. After the descent of lawyers on Bhopal, India, the lawyers group passed a resolution condemning some conduct, but the San Juan, Puerto Rico, hotel fire appeared to be an instant replay.

So association President Robert Habush has launched an unprecedented investigation into whether any of the association's 70,000 members violated the resolution.

Habush appointed a three-member investigative committee, which has contacted eight lawyers about the goings-on in San Juan.

"The conduct of some attorneys has been embarrassing to the mainstream plaintiff's lawyer in this country," Habush said.

Habush said that in addition to the possibility of kicking out of the organization lawyers found to have transgressed, "If we find any solid evidence of things that would be interesting to local or state bar associations . . . I'd have no reluctance to turn that over to them."

One local lawyer who received an inquiry isn't exactly quaking in his boots.

"I think it's pretty funny," said John P. Coale, who was quick to arrive at Dupont Plaza hotel fire site but denied violating the resolution. "I think ATLA's a little paranoid; they want to beat their breast and show they're just like the" more establishment American Bar Association, Coale said.

Alan I. Baron, a white-collar crime and civil litigation specialist at Finley, Kumble, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey, has been named special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee's inquiry into possible impeachment proceedings against U.S. District Judge Alcee L. Hastings.

Baron, a former federal prosecutor in Maryland, defended former acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray against charges that he authorized illegal break-ins into the houses of friends and relatives of "Weathermen" fugitives.

R. Kenneth Mundy has been named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. . . . John D. Maddox, managing partner of the D.C. office of Arter & Hadden, has received the Federal Bar Association's 1987 Litigation Award for Exceptional Achievement.

Bruce J. Heiman, former legislative director and trade counsel to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), has joined Preston, Thorgrimson, Ellis & Holman's office here . . . . Arthur Bryant has been named executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm. Outgoing executive director Anthony Z. Roisman has become of counsel at Cohen, Milstein & Hausfeld.

Frederick B. Abramson of Sachs, Greenebaum & Tayler, Lloyd N. Cutler of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, and Neal M. Sher, head of the Justice Department Office of Special Investigations, received the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League's Benjamin N. Cardozo Award . . . . Georgetown University's moot court team took top honors in the Jessup International Law Moot Court competition. Second-year student Phil Iglima was named best oralist.

And Steven Oster, a hazardous-waste litigator at Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, voted class comedian at his Long Island high school, has won the Funniest Lawyer in Washington contest, sponsored by The Comedy Stop in Georgetown.