IN WASHINGTON, lawyers are not exactly in short supply. Yet when the average citizen needs one, the selection of a lawyer who is both competent and available at a reasonable price can be an awesome business. Many people simply aren't sure what sort of expertise to look for in an attorney, what to consider a reasonable fee or what references the lawyer should be able to provide. While not everyone may require the personal services of a lawyer, there are those occasions when professional legal assistance can be as important as any other individual insurance protection: in damage suits, divorce cases, tax binds, or when help is needed in making out a will.

Thanks to a new project undertaken by the District of Columbia Bar, area residents may "shop" for lawyers through a register that provides detailed information about their backgrounds, practice and - in many instances - fees. It is a voluntary listing, but already the register contains information on more than 400 lawyers, and it is expected to grow to about 1,000 lawyers over the next few months. Better yet, the register is indexed by the fields in which attorneys practice, the languages in which they are fluent and the geographical areas in which their offices are located. There are listings of individual practitioners as well as members of some of the larger firms. Fewer than half of those listed give some information on their rates, but many who do also describe their fee arrangements in considerable detail.

S. White Rhyne Jr., chairman of the lawyer referal services committee that set up the listing, considers the project a partial fulfillment of the "traditional role" of the bar to keep the public informed about its activities. The listings are now kept in four loose-leaf binders in the local bar's offices on H Street NW and a staff member is being made available to help citizens use the books. We like the idea nad hope the listings grow. In fact, if this public service catches on, lawyers' groups in other jurisdictions of the region- and the nation - may see fit to copy the idea.