Maryland lawmakers retained a Baltimore lawyer with extensive investigative experience yesterday to help them explore whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top aides followed the law when dismissing dozens of longtime state workers.

The decision to hire Ward B. Coe III signaled a new direction for the special legislative committee, which was formed with the stated goal of reviewing state personnel laws to determine whether too many employees lacked civil service protections and risked being fired every time a new administration took control in Annapolis.

Coe's resume shows no evidence that he has expertise in personnel law. In his application, he emphasizes his experience overseeing investigations into irregularities at financial institutions.

His letter notes that he assisted in the General Assembly's probe of the 1985 savings and loan crisis -- a sweeping investigation that blamed the debacle on greedy thrift owners whose excesses were nurtured by "captive" regulators and went undetected by all levels of state government.

Democrats said yesterday that they believe a seasoned investigator is needed. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said the committee has received numerous inquiries from former state employees who want to testify and will need Coe's help in organizing hearings. They also will need advice before issuing subpoenas, Middleton said.

Republicans signed off on Coe after considering five finalists, among them Abbe D. Lowell, the Democrats' chief investigative counsel during impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

Like Ehrlich (R) and his chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, Coe was educated at the Gilman School in Baltimore and Princeton University.

Finney said Coe was not a close friend. He did not know whether Coe and Ehrlich knew each other.

Finney said the decision to hire Coe merely provided more proof "that the special committee is an investigative committee . . . and thus illegitimate."