John Payton didn't hesitate when the chief of Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon's transition committee telephoned to inquire whether he would be willing to serve as D.C. corporation counsel.

"I answered yes right away," Payton recalled last week. "This is a tremendous job."

It is also one of the toughest jobs in D.C. government, many agree.

During the last two years, the Corporation Counsel's Office, the city's in-house law firm, has emerged as one of the most troubled agencies in a troubled city government.

Dozens of lawyers and support staff have quit in the wake of budget cuts that left the office strapped for resources.

Its remaining lawyers labor under crushing workloads, and on at least several occasions in recent months they have missed important court deadlines, causing legal setbacks for the city.

Morale in the office, lawyers say, has ebbed substantially.

But Payton, one of the first black partners at the prominent Washington firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, said he accepted the D.C. post in part to help overcome these hurdles.

"I think the city has gone through some dark days," he said last week, his first week in his new post. "I think it is a challenge to try to help the lawyers in this office, who are very good lawyers, regain something they have lost: some stature, some morale, some leadership."

Payton, 44, is well known in Washington legal circles as a first-class litigator with an intense, analytic mind.

Among his corporate clients were CIGNA insurance company and CapCities/ABC, and he did legal work to help the Nigerian government market natural gas to the United States in the early 1980s. He also has represented the D.C. lottery board.

Payton's greatest legal passion, though, has been civil rights, dating to his student days. A Los Angeles native, Payton helped organize a student effort to start a black studies division and increase black enrollment within the Claremont Colleges, of which his alma mater, Pomona College, was a member.

Payton's interest in black studies was more than ideological. His college thesis was on W.E.B. DuBois and the Harlem Renaissance, and he spent a year in Ghana on a fellowship after graduation in 1973, studing the literature of West Africa.

"He had a thorough understanding of the scholarship, which a lot of the professors did not have at the time," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and a student organizer with Payton. "He was a very serious and analytic person."

After his fellowship, Payton arrived at Harvard Law School during the height of the Boston busing crisis, and he went to work taking legal affadavits from people injured in the violence.

While at Harvard, he became interested in the case of a group of Mississippi merchants who had successfully sued the NAACP for organizing a boycott of white businesses that discriminated against blacks.

The case threatened to wipe out the national civil rights group if upheld. Wilmer, Cutler was representing the NAACP in its appeal, and Payton joined the firm as a young associate after obtaining a promise that he could work on the case.

The case eventually was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Payton went on to a wide range of other civil rights matters. Perhaps his most prominent role was representing the city of Richmond in defending its law requiring that 30 percent of its construction contracts be awarded to minority-owned businesses.

Payton lost the case, although he gets high marks from other lawyers for making skillful arguments.

Ironically, that case may come back to haunt Payton in his new post.

One of the major tasks facing him is to defend the District against a pending challenge to its own minority contracting program. The high court did not totally wipe out such programs, but to justify the program states must demonstrate more clearly past discrimination against minority contractors.

Payton, whose nomination requires formal approval by the D.C. Council, declined to discuss cases under his jursidiction. But it is clear that he will be the point person on several critical issues facing the District, not all of them legal in nature.

Last week, for instance, Dixon appointed Payton to coordinate the city's handling of events related to the Persian Gulf War, including how to cope with increased protests and security needs.

In an interview, Dixon also said she has asked Payton to review all of the city's contracts to determine which ones the government can legally abrogate to help reduce its budget deficit.

Another important task for Payton is to review court orders that require the District to provide services to the homeless, mentally ill, prisoners and other groups. Some D.C. officials argue that these orders also have played a major role in creating the city's projected $300 million budget deficit.

"I do think it is fair for us to go back and take a look at these," Payton said, "to see exactly whether or not they all make sense, what the drain is on the government, whether or not the things they sought to have corrected have been corrected and therefore we ought to be released."

Already, there are signs that the change in administration may bring a change in heart among judges. Rather than issuing an injunction against the city, U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin this month told lawyers for a group of homeless people to negotiate with the city about problems they are having in obtaining food stamps.

Legal advocates for other groups say they are anxious to meet with Payton and gauge the city's responsiveness to issues under court order.

"I think everybody in the city is hoping the mayor will begin grappling with some of these problems," said Claudia Schlossberg, who monitors the city's compliance with a court decree on mental health services.

While dealing with these issues, Payton also has placed a high priority on restoring his office's lapsed stature.

The Corporation Counsel's Office recently was ordered to absorb another 4 percent reduction in its $14 million budget this year as part of Dixon's deficit-reduction efforts.

But Dixon said that despite budget problems, she is committed to giving Payton the tools to succeed. "I'm going to work with him to give him what it takes," she said. "That {office} is an example of where we can make an investment and yield considerable savings."