RICHMOND -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, sounding more like a preacher than a politician, warned his fellow lawyers recently that "dangerous habits {are} developing" in the legal profession.

Speaking about ethics at the annual meeting of the state bar -- a state agency -- in Virginia Beach last week, Wilder said that "when a client comes into your office, that person has to know that they can count on you . . . to utilize your professional legal skills and to put forth all your energies and talents in representing their case."

This from a lawyer who was reprimanded by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1978 for failing to do precisely that when he was in private practice.

It was "a very curious speech that took some cheek to make," said Robert Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A number of people "are likely to respond rather negatively on being lectured on legal ethics by someone who was reprimanded" by the high court, Holsworth said, adding that he couldn't imagine why Wilder "would say anything that would bring this back as an issue again."

Wilder's Republican opponent last year, J. Marshall Coleman, repeatedly referred to the 1978 reprimand during the campaign, suggesting it offered insight into Wilder's character.

Several people who heard Wilder's remarks last week, including C. Flippo Hicks of Gloucester, president of the state bar, said one possible motivation was pique by the governor over news reports that some of the lawyers who represented the Democratic Party in last year's election recount have not been paid. Wilder has told reporters that the question of legal fees should be resolved privately.

State Democratic Party chairman Paul Goldman, a lawyer who doubles as Wilder's chief political strategist, has refused to say whether the bills have been paid, citing "lawyer-client confidentiality" -- a novel approach because as party chair he is the client rather than the lawyer.

Holsworth said Wilder "clearly was peeved" by the public airing of that dispute and earlier reports that the company that printed Wilder's inaugural invitations had not been paid.

While "saying something negative about lawyers is not the worst thing you can do in American politics," Holsworth said, "I'm not so certain Doug Wilder is the person to be doing that."

Wilder's press secretary, Laura Dillard, said the discourse "wasn't a quid pro quo" for the reports of unpaid bills. Because Wilder was speaking to a gathering of lawyers, she said, "he needed to talk about the {legal} profession rather than politics." Dillard added that Wilder finds "irritating the ever-increasing tendency to try things publicly."

She said the governor was "not unaware of the potential" that his stern talk could result in someone bringing up his past legal problems, but she said Wilder "wanted to make it clear he can talk about" ethics.

Rather than try cases in the newspaper, Wilder said, lawyers should have "fewer photo-ops during recesses {and do} more homework before court begins." During his trial days, Wilder was criticized for not always doing his homework.

Perhaps anticipating criticism of his remarks, Wilder defended his "right to be so bold" by noting that he was involved in "three of Virginia's most celebrated cases" -- two involving murder in the '60s and '70s, and "the first heart-transplant case ever tried in this country, a case revolving around the question of the appropriate legal definition of death."

Wilder boasted that "in none of these cases did I feel the need to play to the press and seek their assistance in bolstering my arguments or winning sympathy for myself or my clients . . . . We are lawyers, not spin doctors."

Wilder's financial arrangement from one of the murder trials created news last year when it was revealed that 27.2 acres of land deeded to him by the defendant's family was not reported on Wilder's conflict-of-interest statement. Wilder contended that the land's value was less than the $10,000 reporting threshold, but Coleman called the failure to list it part of a "pattern of ethical abuses."

Several lawyers who attended last week's bar meeting had nothing but praise for Wilder's message. As for the lecturing tone, bar president Hicks said most lawyers "agree that television advertising" and self-promotion by a few are giving the legal profession a bad name.

Raymond J. Diaz of Fairfax, president-elect of the state bar, said he was "glad to hear the governor take that subject up. It's helpful to be reminded as often as possible."

Arlington lawyer George W. Campbell Jr. said, "I did not feel scolded. It was not heavy-handed, not lawyer-bashing."

Campbell, a civil litigator, said there are daily examples of what Wilder was complaining about. In the drug and perjury trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Campbell said, "Hardly a day goes by that you don't see one of those attorneys on the evening news."

As far as Wilder's reprimand, Campbell said that "most attorneys probably view that as ancient history."

The reprimand arose from Wilder's representation of a family injured in a 1966 car accident. Wilder procrastinated in filing court papers, missed deadlines and attempted to cover up his failure by telling one of his clients that "your case is proceeding well."

That, the state Supreme Court found, "could obviously have had no effect other than to mislead his clients." As a result, the court concurred with a lower court that had found Wilder guilty of "unexcused, unreasonable and inordinate procrastination" that "constitutes unprofessional conduct and warrants reprimand."