FOR ALL THE TALK over the years about providing more and better legal help for the poor, the assistance that lawyers have contributed in civil lawsuit cases hasn't been nearly enough. This is the finding of the D.C. Judicial Conference -- which has just approved a significant proposal to do something about it. The plan amounts to a kind of plea-bargain option for lawyers: they either serve a little volunteer time for the cause or pay a little something in cash to help the effort.

A judicial committee on legal services, headed by D.C. Appeals Court Judge John M. Ferren, recommended after a year-long study that Washington attorneys -- including thousands of lobbyists and government lawyers who do not regularly practice law or maintain law offices in the District -- all participate in the plan. Noting that agencies already providing legal aid to poor defendants are overwhelmed with work, the panel said the legal profession as a whole should "take the lead during the coming decade" to ensure counsel in civil cases for those who cannot afford it.

That's no small number. The committee reported that at least 64,000 people did not have lawyers in various kinds of D.C. Superior Court cases last year. This doesn't mean that lawyers were needed in each of these cases. But as Judge Ferren points out, one benefit of having more lawyers available would be to determine whether a litigant should have an attorney. Help is needed most, he says, in cases when litigation is "forced upon" poor defendants in landlord-tenant cases and family matters.

The Judicial Conference -- made up of judges of the local courts and about 200 other people concerned with the law -- approved the concept during its annual meeting Thursday. Under the proposal, a lawyer will be asked to either accept at least one case appointment, provide 40 legal hours of free service or donate the lesser of either $200 or one percent of a year's income.

The idea isn't novel. There are similar plans in effect in other jurisdictions. But the shortage of lawyers for the poor isn't the least bit novel, either. In fact, it shouldn't have been necessary for the Judicial Conference to do all this in an attempt to drum up a greater response from the lawyers. But it was -- and Judge Ferren's committee has done an important service in pressing the matter.