It looks more like a prosperous private law firm than the stereotypical public defender's office: marble walls, fresh flowers and glass brick in the foyer.

Inside Suite 550 at 625 Indiana St. NW, people were scrambling over boxes in bare-walled rooms to find the telephone that's ringing . . . somewhere.

It was moving day last week for A.J. Kramer, the District's first federal public defender. After two years of talk and controversy, the nine-lawyer office is gearing up to represent clients in federal court starting Monday.

In his corner office, Kramer was unpacking boxes, eating a brownie brought in by a staff member and trying to figure out how his newfangled phone system works. At 37, he is an amiable man with a ready laugh and a complete unwillingness to divulge what the "A.J." in his name stands for.

"Never mind. You'll never get it out of me," he said.

He speaks in a Boston accent, which somehow has survived years of living on the West Coast, first as an undergraduate at Stanford, then as a law student at Berkeley, then as a lawyer in the federal public defender offices in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Establishing a federal public defender's office in Washington was a tricky political undertaking, because the move encroached on the territory of two powerful organizations: the local criminal defense bar, many of whose members depend on hourly fees from the U.S. government to represent indigent clients, and the Public Defender Service, a 60-lawyer office financed by the District whose attorneys work mostly in D.C. Superior Court.

The Public Defender Service pushed hard for additional money so that it could take on the job of expanding its services in federal court. But federal judges in Washington, notably Chief U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., opted instead to lobby for federal money to start a separate public defender's office to serve federal court.

The judges were influenced by the increasing number of criminal cases flooding into federal courts everywhere, particularly in the District, involving drugs and defendants too poor to hire lawyers.

The increasing number of cases, and the increasing complexity of many of them, were taxing the resources of the private bar, and some judges were complaining privately that some lawyers appearing in their courts were unprepared to try criminal cases.

Critics charged that adding a federal public defender's office was merely duplicating bureaucracy. But to Kramer, the issue isn't one of turf or bureaucratic infighting. It's how best to ensure that defendants who have a constitutional right to a lawyer get the best one they can. If that doesn't happen, he said, the American legal advocacy system doesn't work.

"Nobody can be prosecuted unless they have {access to} a lawyer," he said. "It's one of the credits to our system that we provide this service."

His commitment also is practical: Studies by the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts show that the cost to taxpayers of providing representation for indigent defendants in federal courts is less with a public defender's office than with private representation. The agency estimated that a federal public defender costs $1,510 per case, compared with $2,600 for a private lawyer.

In addition, Kramer said, federal public defenders do nothing but criminal work and can spend the time it takes to keep abreast of the latest developments in criminal law, especially the burgeoning case law on how to apply complex federal sentencing guidelines.

But private lawyers need not fear: Because of conflict of interest rules, Kramer's office cannot represent more than one defendant in the same case. That constraint, plus the flood of new drug cases, is likely to keep private lawyers busy.

Which is why Kramer also plans for his office to be a resource center for local lawyers, many of whom are finding that new federal sentencing guidelines are demanding a specialized field of knowledge far different from what it takes to practice law in D.C. Superior Court.

Kramer, who was sworn in last September, has been at work since then in a makeshift office in the federal courthouse, ordering office furniture and reviewing re'sume's. The last wasn't easy; Kramer estimates there were 500 applicants for the eight slots he had available. All the re'sume's, he said, were "of incredible quality."

In the end, four of the eight lawyers Kramer hired were from the District or its suburbs, and two were hired straight from the Public Defender Service.

"D.C. is a national draw," he said. "Having a brand new office is a challenge and also exciting, I think." It helped, too, that aside from working in the nation's capital, lawyers on his staff also would be up against prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office, which traditionally has drawn some of the nation's brightest law school graduates.

But first, his lawyers will have to get sworn in as assistant public defenders. And it would help if by Monday they had desks, working telephones, computers and fax machines.

Kramer doesn't know who his office's first client will be or which assistant will draw the first case. He doesn't intend to spend much time in the courtroom, at least not right away.

"We'll establish some kind of rotation, and some lucky soul will be on duty that day," he said, laughing. And then it will be on to the task of protecting the rights of the innocent and seeing that the guilty, too, get their day in court.