Mayor-Elect Sharon Pratt Dixon has chosen John Payton, a partner at the Washington law firm of Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, to serve as corporation counsel for her administration, according to sources close to Dixon's transition team.

Payton, 44, a native of Oakland, has lived in the District for 12 years. He graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., in 1973 and received a law degree from Harvard University in 1977.

He currently represents the D.C. lottery board.

Payton specializes in litigation at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, which is one of the 10 largest law firms in Washington, with more than 175 partners and associates and an office in London.

As corporation counsel, Payton will be the chief legal officer for the city. He will direct an office that is designed to employ about 180 lawyers but recently has been severely understaffed and underfunded.

At one point this year, the office functioned with two-thirds of the lawyers it was authorized to hire. Many of its more experienced attorneys have quit, and the remaining ones have complained of being overworked and hindered by low morale.

Among its duties, the Corporation Counsel's Office is responsible for defending the city in legal matters. It also handles foster care and all juvenile cases, including the prosecution of minors and those accused of child abuse and neglect.

The number of cases involving children has mushroomed in recent years as an epidemic of drug abuse has taken hold in the District. More than 900 child abuse and neglect cases passed through the D.C. court system last year, an increase of more than 50 percent from the year before.

The corporation counsel also gives legal advice to the city's agencies, boards and commissions, reviews municipal contracts and does legislative work for the D.C. Council.

Critics say that the city's lawyers take too long to get cases into court, that they are too distracted to give city agencies adequate guidance and that their energies are spread too thin to perform all of their functions.

The office is divided into eight divisions: civil, criminal, appellate, consumer affairs and trade regulation, public works, legal counsel, mental health and community development.

Dixon spokesmen declined yesterday to comment on Payton's appointment. The mayor-elect is scheduled to announce her choice for corporation counsel and several other positions at a news conference today.