Alexander N. Levay Jr., Loudoun County's new public defender, is accustomed to clients whose introductory remarks consist entirely of "you're mighty young to be a lawyer."

In Fairfax, where Levay was an assistant public defender for 2 1/2 years, "they'd always ask, 'How long you been a lawyer?' and I'd always reply, 'Longer than you.' "

At 28, Levay became Virginia's youngest chief public defender when he was appointed in March to succeed Paul A. Maslakowski, 32, in the 20th Judicial District that comprises Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties.

Levay was a second-year law student at George Washington University and had already clerked for a private law firm, concentrating on civil discrimination and employment cases, when he went to work for the D.C. Public Defender's Office.

"That's really when I discovered . . . that this was probably the route I wanted to take," he said. The job is enticing to a young lawyer "because of all the trial experience you're going to get. You're going to be calling the shots for your own cases. You're not doing support work for another lawyer."

After working in an office with eight full-time assistant public defenders ("We had quite a docket . . . but I loved it. I like running around"), Levay will have three part-time assistants to defend indigent clients in Leesburg, Warrenton and Washington.

It is too soon to tell, Levay said, whether the pace will be more relaxed in Loudoun, because Maslakowski "was very generous and took essentially all his pending cases with him" into private practice. Levay took over the office April 16, and what he knows so far is that the courthouse crowd has taken pains to make him feel relaxed.

"Everyone has . . . gone out of their way to help me out. There really seems to be a friendly attitude out here. I think I can get used to this small-town atmosphere," he said.

Levay was born on Cape Cod, grew up in New York and New Jersey and still has Jersey plates on his car -- a sub-subcompact that he refers to as his "econobox." It is not the sort of car being driven by his law school classmates who joined private firms.

Levay earned $23,000 when he was hired in Fairfax, $30,000 by the time he left. He was hired in Loudoun at $45,000 -- the top of the advertised salary scale for the job -- "so it was a nice raise," he said.

But those are not the going rates for young lawyers, "and that's the problem about keeping people," said Levay, whose departure from the Fairfax office two months ago created a third vacancy there. "It isn't that they don't like their work. They love it . . . . They feel they're making a difference."

But families, financial obligations and career goals intervene, he said. "I guess it comes down to how much is enough to make you happy, and whether money is important in your life. Obviously it isn't too major for me, but at least now I'm not worrying about paying the bills month to month."

At least one of his classmates is following him partway down this road. Levay has hired John Jamnback, also 28 and an associate at the D.C. law firm of Heller, Temple, Boraks & Bullock, as a part-time public defender. Jamnback will spend half his time with the firm, half in Levay's office providing manpower while gaining trial experience.

The other new part-timer is Roy Bradley, 49, a Madison lawyer who was a business executive before going to law school at Campbell College in North Carolina and starting a private practice, primarily in criminal law, six years ago.

Bradley says that coming to the profession later in life "gives me a different perspective . . . . I realize the importance of an attorney's activities in the lives of the people they represent." He will work out of his Madison office, handling cases primarily in Fauquier and Rappahannock.

Robert W. King Jr., hired by Maslakowski, will continue as a part-time assistant, and the office has been allotted a fourth part-time slot beginning next spring. Levay said he could convert two of those positions to a full-time job. "It's easier than juggling part-timers," he said, pointing to the three desk calendars he keeps current -- his, theirs and a master schedule.

Still, the action, in and out of the courtroom, is part of the job's appeal. "The more I do it," Levay said, "the more I'm convinced I couldn't sit behind a desk. I haven't set a calendar of my goals for the future. I'm happy now, I like what I'm doing, and I'm going to continue to do it until that changes."