NOT TOO MANY years ago, almost all of Washington's corporate lawyers were men, but today few law firm letterheads lack women's names. The number of women joining the city's prestigious legal establishment increases with each graduating law school class.

Yet, as women enter the ranks, those now on the inside are beginning to question whether they want to be part of this intense and highly competitive profession.

Female law graduates recognize that Washington is well ahead of other cities in recruiting women lawyers. Barbara Price, an associate with Wald, Harkrader & Ross, says that "Washington is by far the best place for women to practice law." She credits the government's long-time practice of hiring women attorneys, private firms' growing acceptance of women and clients' greater exposure to female lawyers.

Consequently, female lawyers look to Washington as a land of job opportunity. They areassisted in their efforts by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but if civil rights started the ball rolling, the superior ability of many of these female minds is giving it added momentum.

Female associates in Washington firms claim that sex discrimination as their male counterparts. "I take the attitude that I'm a lawyer, not a woman lawyer, and I'm capable of doing anything that I want," says Christine Carnevos, an associate and the only woman at the five-person firm of Lawlor, Kent & Eisenberg.

Price, whose firm has 51 male and 16 female lawyers, agrees: "The firm clearly does not differentiate between men and women attorneys. I wouldn't go some place where I continually had to prove myself as a woman."

Most of the major law firms have one or more women partners, and the law school classes with higher percentages of females are rapidly approaching the time when they, too, should be eligible.

Carnevos is optimistic about her chances. Most young women are hopeful, and reasonably confident, they if they produce good work they will reap their partnership rewards right along with the men.

"They want your soul"

But at the same time, women lawyers are asking some new questions about their profession. They are not so certain that they want equal treatment.

Women have discovered that new associates handle the tedious and boring case work, much of it library research, while senior associates and partners hoard interesting assignments, client meeting and job recognition. The seven-to eight-year associate stint may require long hours at the office characterized by a nervous eagerness to please the higher-ups and anxiety over productivity and status vis a vis other young lawyers.

"To get ahead you have to be willing to work unlimited hours," says one woman in her mid-30s who recently received her J.D. and who asked not to be identified. "They want your soul."

Margaret Love, who recently left Shea & Gardner to join the Justice Department, comments on "the considerable pressure in a law firm to be an overachiever. Those are the people who will get ahead," says Love.

Associates who can keep up the pace earn partnership status, a ticket to a six-digit income and all its accoutrements. But partnership does not mean easy street. Very bright and very organized attorneys might escape with an average 45-hour or 50-hour work week, but other require more time to drum up business, entertain clients, work on cases, travel, help manage the firm and contribute to bar and other legal associations.

Speaking recently before the Women's Bar Association, Patricia M. Wald, and assistant attorney general and presidential nominee to a judgeship on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, warned, "Don't neglect your private life. It is terribly important." She wishfully added, "I hope women will help the law become a more humane profession."

Wald's caveat is particularly appropriate because female lawyers no longer fit the single or childless stereotypes of years past. Now most are married or plan to marry, and they want to have children. More important, they want to spend time with their childrem.

These women need to convince law firms that they can take time off to have babies, continue to nurse after returning to a job and work part-time if they choose.

Most firms are fairly accommodating about maternity leave and welcome new mothers back into the fold. However, the logistics of nursing still present some problems.

After Marna Tucker, of Boasberg, Hewes, Finkelstein & Klores, returned from maternity leave, she went home every day at 4 o'clock to breast feed. Lynda Zengerle, of Leighton, Conklin & Lemov, handled the situation in a more direct manner: She kept her baby at the office and nursed him there, making Zengerle a legend among Washington's women attorneys.

Perhaps these two lawyers were able to cope through support from men. Tucker's husband, Larry Baskir, then general counsel for the Pesidential Clemency Board, also left his job at 4 o'clock and continued to work in the evening. Zengerle's senior partner, Richard Leighton, suggested to her that she bring in the baby with her briefcase. Part-time problems

The issue of part-time work is more difficult than nursing because its resolution has a greater impact on law firms themselves. If firms encourage longer-than-everage work weeks, they are understandably hesitant to approve a partial week. They may not want to invest in a lawyer who can't pull her share of the load.

However, a few lawyer-mothers have found that part-time work is a viable option. Some Washington firms have agreed, in specific instances, to accommodate women who want to give jobs and families a more even split.

For those women, the part-time route has its drawbacks. Lawyers who can compartmentalize their lives into office time and leisure time are rare, and women who work part time find they bring their lawyering, including telephone calls from clients, into the hoem. When Arnold & Porter partner Brooksley Landau worked part-time, she maintained full-time domestic help, allowing her to get to the office whenever necessary.

Perhaps the biggest concern for part-time associates, and for firms that employ them, is the effect that status has on partnership chances. If a woman works three days a week for one year, does she only earn credit for three-fifths of a year? Will part-timers be considered for partnership at all?

Arnold & Porter made Landau a partner when she was working three days a week, even though she never expected it. But then Landau graduated first in her class at Stanford, where she was president of the law review. Whether or not more average women lawyers will be given the same break remains to be seen.

Some women associates even wonder if limiting a work week to 40 hours would hurt partnership chances. Peggy Crenshaw, of Brownstein, Zeidman & Schonner, says that women are frequently unable to meet the standards law firms impose on men for partnership. "I have a very hard time working weekends and into the evenings," remarks Crenshaw, the mother of an infant.

"Women will consistently be low on billable hours," concludes Crenshaw. And since "money is the bottom line with all law firms," she is concerned that those who work the hardest will reap the rewards.

The mere existence of this problem raises the question of why the difficulty in combining a legal career and family resides with the women attorneys. Even in light of recent radical changes in the traditional male and female roles, women are still accepting a disproportionate share of child-rearing responsibilities.

Some wives claim that they have strong maternal instincts and want to fulfill that role in addition to meeting career goals. "I want to do a good job, but I also want to be a good mother," explains Lynda Aengerle.

Other women recognize that husbands, no matter now supportive of their wives' professional growth, simply aren't acculturated to assume an equal parental role. "If my child were to get sick during the middle of the day, I'd be the one to take care of him," acknowledges Peggy Crenshaw.

Joseph Zengerle, partner at Shea & Gardner and Lynda's husband, says that "however sensitive a man might be to the professional aspirations of his wife, it seems inevitable that she will bear greater burdens than he. I think it's the conditioning by which men are accustomed to being supported in their profession by women at home."

Or perhaps, as one woman attorney with a large firm states, men have a different outlook on themselves and their jobs. "I think men are constituted differently," says this woman, who asked not to be identified. "Their career orientation, their perception of their own importance in the working world, is greater than a woman's.

"I have no illusions about my job and my importances: I'm replaceable," she said.

Because of their personal concerns and philosphies, women are standing up to law firms and are saying that they'll do their part but no more, that someone else will have to take on the rest. Women are looking for firms with more humane adttitudes towards lawyers and a work ethic which provides a good product but which also is elastic which provides a good product but which also is elastic enough to bend with individual wants and needs.

The law firm which respond may end up hiring the brightest and most capable women lawyers. One young married law firm associate summed up her view by saying, "If they can only have a given woman three days a week, they ought to consider themselves lucky to have her that much."

Perhaps as law firms increasingly meet the needs of women attorneys, male lawyers will want to reassess their own commitments to work and to home. They may not be such workoholics, after all, but rather the unwilling products of a highly competitive and self-important profession. But so far, they haven't had the courage to say so. CAPTION: Picture 1, Christine Carnevos By Douglas Chevaller - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Linda Zengerle, By Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post