HIGH-PRICED, sophisticated lawyers thrive in Washington, where after all, the law is the major industry. And, in the sea of three-piece suits and briefcases, Alphonso A. Christian II seemingly fits right in.

An articulate yet reserved Harvard Law School graduate, he is a partner with Hogan & Hartson, one of the largest firms in town with 140 lawyers. But Christian stands out among his peers: he is black.

Only three other partners with the big Washington firms share this distinction: Vincent H. Cohen, also of Hogan & Hartson; Wesley S. Williams Jr. and John R. Risher Jr.

Partnership is the key to success with law firms, in Washington and elsewhere. Associates are salaried, but partners are rewarded with a share of the profit pie and a voice in office policy decisions.

Breaking the partnership barrier -- there usually is a seven-to-eight-year waiting period -- is tough for white lawyers, but nearly impossible for blacks. The six-digit incomes, intellectually stimulating work and secure lifestyle evade them. Out-and-out racism plays a major part in their failure, but more subtle factors also come into play.

Black lawyers lack role models, mentors in the firms to teach and protect them. Nor do they generally have the wealth and family connections to bring business to a firm and to advance client interests.

Christian and his three peers achieved partnership status in this harshly competitive environment because they possess a special toughness and strong sense of themselves, born of family support and a fierce determination to reach the top.

"The problem," Christian says, "is that blacks don't own a piece of America. All the natural resources were taken when we weren't permitted to own anything. In fact, blacks themselves were only chattel. As a result, we don't have as much with which to work."

He is referring not just to the wealth of the upper middle class from which he came, but to the resources to develop and control the politics and economics of our society.

"Lawyers are the reflection of the ambitions and desires of capitalists," says John Risher, the only black partner with Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn. "They are cast in a context in which, for the most part, blacks have not been permitted to participate. It's not the easiest thing in the world to bridge that cultural gap."

Obviously, not many black lawyers can. And the presence of four exceptional men at the top rung of Washington's legal establishment is not evidence of America's success in confronting racial discrimination; the fact that there are only four is evidence of failure.

Christian, 33, a Hogan & Hartson partner since 1977, says lawyers at the major white firms fall into three categories: associates with the firm less than four years, associates for more than four years and partners.

"If you look at blacks in the first category, the record of most major firms is poor," Christian explains. "In the second category, the record is considerably worse. The record for the third category is abysmal.

"Obviously, there is a revolving door system. If you look at most major firms at any point in time, you will find five, six or seven black lawyers out of 125 to 200, but these few blacks aren't the same ones who were with the firm four years ago. Minorities are always represented, but they seldom progress up through the system," he says.

"It may well be that a young, black lawyer in a large, prestigious firm is viewed essentially as a temporary lawyer, as distinguished from a potential partner, which is the way most of his white counterparts are viewed," Christian asserts.

The son of a Virgin Islands judge, Christian attributes his strong work ethic to a family focus on scholastic excellence. "My father was very, very big on education, although he never went to college or law school. He was a self-made man who earned his degree by correspondence."

The judge enrolled his son in private Catholic schools at 2 1/2. He was graduated from high school at 15.

When he enrolled in Notre Dame University, Christian had never faced overt racial discrimination. He found himself living on a campus with fewer than a dozen blacks in a student body of about 6,000.

"I had to make rapid adjustments to a new culture, a new academic pace and a new climate," Christian recalls. "The first year really tested my self-confidence."

Christian still finds incidents of racism in the Washington legal world. While happy at Hogan & Hartson, he says that racism does crop up in daily business transactions for many black lawyers. "All the little subtle forms of discrimination in a white world are par for the course, and you just develop a thick skin in order to succeed," he maintains.

Christian is fighting to help other blacks break into the system. "The fact that we have two black partners at Hogan & Hartson is extremely significant," he says with pride. "The move from one to two is very important, although two certainly aren't enough." (Hogan & Hartson is the only firm in the nation's top 50 which has two black partners.)

A member of Hogan & Hartson's recruitment committee, Christian travels to campuses to advise and assist black law students.

"We have to help blacks adjust to this very difficult system," he says. "If they lose confidence, it's all downhill."

For Covington & Burling partner Wesley Williams, racial discrimination also came as a shock. Not until he was sent away to a New England prep school at 12 -- the only black student enrolled -- did he fully comprehend society's prejudice. "It came over me like a ton of bricks that there were people who had it in for me," Williams says.

When he was older, Williams, 34, continues, "having developed the sense that every door was open to me and that no challenge was too great, I started learning the legacy of slavery in this country." He remembers touring with the Harvard Glee Club (of which he became president), when the entire group had to leave restaurants because they wouldn't serve blacks.

Before joining Covington & Burling in 1970, where he serves on the hiring and pro bono oversight committees, Williams, straight from law school, "hitched his wagon to Walter E. Fauntroy's star" when he was vice chairman of the D.C. City Council.

Williams helped draft procedures for running the new D.C. government while commuting to New York to earn his master's of law at Columbia University. He moved on to the Senate District Committee, where he was "the first black to serve as the principal lawyer for a full congressional committee."

Williams' success as a specialist in bank regulation and financing is proof that "you can't allow yourself to be defeated by white people's limited view. You have to be prepared to fight to get whatever you want and you will have to expect that events will break for you."

Yet Williams has trouble convincing other black lawyers at Covington & Burling to adopt his attitude. "I spend a great deal of my time giving pep talks to the black attorneys around the firm and to others who have left, trying to convince them that first, success in this firm is important for blacks, and second, the opportunity for success exists."

Williams regrets that high-level government positions siphon off many of the bright young black lawyers who think that choice leads to greater power.

"Government jobs are dangled before black lawyers all the time," says Williams, "but I believe in 12 gates to the city. It's a question of trying to broaden the influence of blacks."

Vincent H. Cohen, 43, Hogan & Hartson's first black partner, began his law career with the Justice Department. The Wall Street firms he interviewed for in 1960 said their clients wouldn't accept a black lawyer. Cohen's senior adviser had suggested that he look at the United Nations "because they hire people of all colors."

The former Syracuse University All-American basketball player emphasizes that government employment is not the much touted road to social change. "Most blacks are smart enough to know that government can't produce any change at all," he asserts. "It is political, and politics requires staying in the middle."

Law firms, on the other hand, are powerful; they represent powerful companies, the Syracuse Law School graduate says. "These are the people who run the country, and few blacks are at the very top levels of these organizations.

"I think that if more blacks could be on boards of major corporations and partners with major law firms, in positions to contribute economically to election campaigns, they could have far more clout than as federal government employes. External pressures have the most influence," he concludes.

Cohen is grateful for his Justice Department experience. Representing the government in medical mal-practice suits prepared him for trial work.

"A number of my white opponents in the courtroom underestimated me," Cohen explains. "As I kept winning cases, the acceptance came. Unfortunately, not every black lawyer with a major firm gets an opportunity to try cases."

A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Cohen is no stranger to segregation. "I always thought that discrimination was due to a lack of education on the part of a lot of white people and that when I got to a very high, sophisticated level, people would look at credentials. Instead, I found the same discrimination at those high levels as in a sixth-grade, redneck Mississippi community."

Cohen claims that Hogan & Hartson has a "more down-to-earth, relaxed attitude" than most law firms, yet he thinks racism will always exist in the legal community.

"Law firms are microcosms of our larger society," he explains. "Discrimination still exists in our society, so we have to assume it exists in law firms. It's like the rain: you put up an umbrella and keep moving on."

A major goal, in Cohen's view, is establishing an "old-boy network" among black professionals. "Law firms want people with the ability to attract business. When business flows in, it usually flows from friendship factors. They make up an old-boy network blacks are not in, and being unable to attract business hurts."

John Risher, 40, has been a partner at Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn since 1973, except for a two-year break when he served as District of Columbia corporation counsel. His family had wanted him to become a doctor.

"Back then, black lawyers were held in fairly low regard by most blacks," Risher recalls. "I remember being told that every black lawyer I knew worked in a post office and was better off for it."

As recently as 20 years ago, Risher says, black clients always chose white lawyers. Their preference, which he says still exists today, is "a strange but well known byproduct of racism in the U.S. It is a reflection of the lack of respect blacks have for themselves."

Today, "very few of my clients are black because few blacks have occasion to need the kind of legal work I do, or if they do, they may not think coming to me is economically prudent." His few black clients are "extremely well off or have extremely big problems which they want solved free of charge."

Risher adds that black lawyers are often viewed unfavorably by white clients as well. "I expect clients who don't know me to have some concern about my ability, because America has taught them to think blacks are less capable. If not born that way, circumstances prevent blacks from being more capable." Potential clients also may wonder about reactions of opposing counsel, judge and jury to a black lawyer.

Some concerns are legitimate in selecting an attorney, Risher says, but "making blacks the object of such an analysis is particularly devastating."

Risher, who specializes in commercial law, is nonetheless satisfied to be a black lawyer in a white world. "When I was in college," he says,"I decided that I didn't want to be the type of lawyer most black lawyers were; wanted to make my way to the highest rung of the legal profession."

A third-generation Washingtonian, Risher applied to Morgan State College in Baltimore "to find out what the black experience was all about." The child of professional, educated parents, he had been one of few blacks in a parochial school system.

After graduating from the University of Southern California School of Law and stints with the military and the Justice Department, he interviewed for a job with Washington law firms. He puzzled over the choice of joining one of the major D.C. firms or a "well-regarded black law firm."

Black lawyers and black judges with whom he conferred "all said I should go with a white firm where I would learn more, where life would be more challenging and more rewarding. Part of that reward is that I would do more for blacks because doing well would mean I had met the same standards, at least those that exist for my work colleagues."

Risher says that he seldom focuses on being the only black partner in the office. "We've never made decisions in a way to make me aware that I was the only black participant."

But he can recall interviewing with another large Washington firm and being told that "the firm wasn't prepared to make the break with history. I guess I would have been continuously aware that I was a black associate" with that firm, he says.