A PARTITION sliced through the middle of a ramshackle, wood-frame washateria on the outskirts of Jasper, Tex. Black women awaited the use of their one working dryer, even though some of the four dryers in the "whites only" section sat idle. The blacks knew beter than to try to sneak through the partition's door. The elderly couple who ran the laundromat would reprimand them and whisk the intruders back to wait for their machine to be free.

Early this year, several young black women from the Jasper area walked into their local East Texas Legal Services office to ask if they weren't allowed to cross through that partition -- indeed, if it wasn't illegal to bar them in the first place. Richard Tomlinson, the lone attorney in the office, just one year out of George Washington University law school, immediately saw headlines: "I knew we had a great case here, and I wanted to get federal court experience."

But Tomlinson also understood the policy of East Texas Legal Services (ETLS): Don't shoot first; persuade. A letter from his office and one soft-spoken conference with the elderly owners a day later, and a quiet agreement was reached. In May, with no fanfare, a washateria in East Texas was desegregated.

That incident says a lot about East Texas, an area that somehow got left behind during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

But at about the same time Tomlinson was explaining the laws against segregation to the laundromat proprietors, there was another incident, this time in Washington, that says even more about the people of East Texas than the elderly couple who quietly acceded to change.

In February, Rep. Sam Hall Jr., whose district is included in ETLS' service area, introduced H.R. 1911, a bill to abolish the federal Legal Services Corporation. His reason: complaints from constituents about the way East Texas Legal Services does its job. In a letter to his colleagues in the House written after he introduced the bill, Hall asserted that his constituents believe -- "with justification -- that Legal Services workers are more interested in social activism than in helping the poor people with routine legal problems. . . ."

The fight over federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation has been one of the most bitterly contested battles between congressional liberals and the White House this year. The Reagan administration, eager to abolish the $321 million program, has asked the Congress for zero funding. Although it is unlikely that Reagan will get his way, the House of Representatives on June 18 authorized a spending ceiling of $241 million for the program and a House appropriations subcommittee last week tentatively set the corporation's funding at $239 million. The White House campaigned actively against the June 18 authorization bill, with Edwin Meese III, counselor to the president, indicating in a letter to House Republicans that Reagan would veto the measure if it passed both houses.

In a recent interview, Hall painted a picture of a Legal Services operation gone mad, wildly filing fictional discrimination suits against guiltless city governments and beneficent state and federal agencies. In his 28 years as an attorney in the small town of Marshall, Tex., Hall says he never knew a poor person who couldn't get a lawyer to file a meritorious case.

Now, he says, lawyers for ETLS daily bring frivolous suits on behalf of poor people they hardly know. These "pawns," says Hall, don't even believe in the suits to which Legal Services attorneys have them apply their names. He boasted that he had a stack of complaints primarily from doctors, lawyers and politicians in his district about slothful ETLS attorneys who fire off lawsuits without understanding the law and who seem to go out of their way to avoid the real mandate of Legal Services -- the day-to-day drudge work of divorces, social security challenges and child custody cases.

"These are people who are always trying to ferment unnecessary lawsuits, government-sponsored class action suits and poor lawsuits that no good lawyer would take," he says. "They are completely out of line."

Which image is correct? Is ETLS diligently avoiding controversy to get the job done, or is it playing a game of chess with the poor? A trip to Hall's district to talk with lawyers, community leaders and clients yields no clear answers.

You don't have to be in East Texas long to see that it is dirt poor, just a series of passed over, forgotten towns dominated by a few large timber companies that own the giant pines that line every road. Work scarce; more than 40 percent of the people who live in the 47 counties covered by ETLS are poor, compared to less than 20 percent statewide. Only 8 percent of the families in Hall's district earn more than $15,000 a year.

Naturally, there are interests that stand to gain from keeping the status quo in East Texas, and doubtless some of those are responsible for part of the pressure Hall feels to dismantle ETLS. And Hall's 100 percent rating from the archconservative Americans for Constitutional Action and his boisterous objections to federal intervention make him a natural receptacle for lsuch complaints.

But complaints from diehards who oppose federal intervention in any form can't explain why Rep. Hall has become such an aggressive foe of Legal Services, nor can they fully account for why he is hearing cheers, not jeers, from constituents for introducing his legislation. The reasons for Hall's support are much more complex. They have far more to do with the sometimes arrogant, insensitive style of Legal Services attorneys and the private bar's perception of the lavish attention poor people receive from ETLS than they do with ETLS' actual performance.

When Gary Thomas opened up the first of the ETLS offices in Nacogdoches four years ago, you could count the number of East Texas attorneys doing legal aid work on one hand. This soft-spoken, mustachioned, 35-year-old graduate of the University of Texas law school was no stranger to controversy, having arrived in Pine Ridge, S.D., as a legal aid attorney seven months before the 1973 Indian insurrection in nearby Wounded Knee.

Thomas' mandate was to build -- fast -- a legal network that would stretch from Nacogdoches 54 miles northwest to Tyler, north 150 miles to the Oklahoma and Arkansas borders, east 75 miles to Louisiana and south 150 miles to Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.

Now 34 lawyers staff seven Legal Services outposts from Paris to Longview. If taken as a whole, ETLS is the largest law firm in East Texas. Its growth has not been easy for local people to understand, especially while they are being told that the federal government is trying to tighten its belt. But the expansion was mandated by the federal government as part of ETLS' $2.3 million budget.

ETLS attorneys earn an average salary of $18,000 a year, not bad for this part of the country, considering the staff mean is about three years of legal experience. Thomas makes $36,000 a year as director, slightly more than attorneys in the town's largest law firm who have the same amount of legal experience.

Thomas knew it wouldn't be easy to get the East Texas program off the ground. "A lot of people think that all we do is represent gay, black, homicidal illegal aliens and welfare chiselers in criminal court," he says.

He also lunderstood that local lawyer oppostion could be devastating. Unless private practitioners were convinced

that Legal Services attorneys would not be cut-throat competitors or bombthrowers, the established lawyers might harass their ETLS opponents with motion after motion on the most mundane matters.

What Thomas didn't count on was pressure from the left, the handful of frustrated attorneys who had done civil rights work in East Texas for years and who viewed the arrival of Legal Services the way the military viewed the coming of the atomic bomb. They wanted to set off an explosion of lawsuits that would bring down the existing order. These liberal backers crowded onto the 21-member ETLS board of directors and immediately began clamoring for an aggressive, confrontationist posture.

For Thomas, who had heard how lawyers and clients of the neighboring Texas Rural Legal Aid office had suffered from an antaonistic style, such a strategy was abhorrent.

"I didn't want to hire anyone with a chip on his shoulder," he says. "You don't want to shoot from the hip."

Thomas can now lay claim to a staff almost wholly cast in his image. No one fits the mold that Rep. Hall sculpts. ETLS attorneys look and act like members of the bar, and while underneath they may seethe about the social order in this fifth of Texas, they rarely let it show. Indeed, in talking with a dozen Legal Services attorneys in Hall's district, only one, Robyn Ray in Longview, said she took a job with Legal Services because she wanted to foment change and get paid for doing so. Only one attorney, Virginia Schramm in Tyler, spent more time on class actions than Social Security and domestic relations.

Most of the attorneys' work schedules are like those of Carolyn Scott, until June the managing attorney at Longview. "Sixty-five percent of my cases are in family law," she says. "Eleven percent are Social Security. If anyone talked to me, they would know better about what I do."

The ETLS case load for the seven offices reflects Scott's docket. "Only about 100 of our cases are touchy," Thomas says. But those 100 cases can go a long way toward alienating key East Texans. Port Arthur Mayor Bernis Sadler spen #300,000 to defend his town in a voting rights case brought by ETLS and the Justice Department. "They are on the wrong side of the debate on everything," he says. The mayors of Nacogdoches, Marshall and Longview concur. The housing directors of Clarksville, Beaumont. Texarkana and Cleveland have been hit, too. School districts, hospitals and utility companies have all drawn suits.

in short, ETLS has become what the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division or the federal courts were to communities all over the country in the 1960s and 1970s: the primary tool of federal intervention in local affairs.

In area as hostile to federally mandated changes as this one, its agents don't get much room to go awry. Two examples best illustrate what has really spurred the vitriol.

In 1979, paralegal Pat Bdourdan was trying furiously to get dental help for a woman on welfare who had just had all her teeth pulled in preparation for dentures. Soon after that operation, she lost her welfare benefits because her husband had become eligible for Social Security, and she could no longer afford to pay for dentures. Bourdan wrote Nacogdoches dentist Larry Hancock and asked that the woman be allowed to pay $10 a month for the $550 denture job until the balance was paid.

The dentist scrawled this in return: "Dear Pat: I have a better suggestion: My regular fee for dentures is $550. I will cut that to $400. You will pay me out of your check the $400 and let Mrs. Kittrell pay you back personally $10 a month for 3.3 years. If you are interested please call."

Rather than ignore the letter, Bourdan fired off an indignant one of her own -- and had it signed by everyone in the office, including Thomas.

It siad in part: "We feel that not only was your response particularly sarcastic, but it exhibited a lack of the kind of sensitivity that we would expect when selecting a medical professional to care for our personal needs. Therefore we would like you to know that for our own personal and family needs we will make a conscientious effort to avoid your office in the future."

Hancock immediately characterized the letter as a proclamation of a boycott, and he hired Nacogdoches lawyer Tom Rorie to bring suit in federal court against ETLS for organizing an illegal boycott. The opportunity was just what Rorie, an ETLS opponent early on, needed to fashion a much broader case against Legal Services. He quickly dug up some examples of cases in which ETLS had handled two forbidden fee-generating matters. When the Justice Department declined to pursue the case, Rorie brought the suit on his own in U.S. District Court in Tyler. The case is still in discovery.

Thomas regrets that whole business now. He admits that the letter from his office was ill-considered, but he insists that there has never been a boycott. As for the charge that ETLS accepted fee-generating cases, Thomas says they were mistakes that came about because there is only do much ETLS can do to ensure that someone isn't ripping it of for free legal care.

It seems unlikely that ETLS would ever want to take a fee-generating case away from private bar. After all, with an average of 87 active cases per lawyer at any given time, they have enough to do, and if fees are awarded, they go into a general litigation fund anyway. But this minor incident made a lasting negative impression in the minds of Nacogdockhes citizens. Though the town is just outside Rep. Hall's district, the trouble there is one of the first things Hall brings up to support his argument that ETLS is engaged in wrong-headed social activism.

But the classic case of a misunderstanding that ended tragically occurred in Texarkana, where Legal Services opened an office in 1978. Mistakes made by both ETLS and the private bar in that city provide a devastating showcase of how ETLS has earned scorn in East Texas and Washington.

Thomas first arranged for consultants to host meetings on both the Texas and Arkansas sides of the town to explain the functions of Legal Services to poor people. Because it would not be a large office -- there would be only five attorney -- Legal Services would not be able to take on all cases it wanted to. Thomas asked the Texarkana poor to rank their priorities so ETLS lawyers would know which cases to take.

An overwhelming majority voted to urge ETLS to concentrate on getting equal municipal facilities and local government services for the poor and black residents of the town. The next priority was community group representation before utility and credit companies, followed closely by improved medical care regardless of ability to pay. Help with loans for home purchase and repair and on land title questions ranked behind that, with job and voting discriminaion falling after those priorities. Near the very bottom of the list were government benefit challenges for Social Security and domestic relations work.

But Thomas was getting a different education from the local bar. The Taxarkana legal community is small, with only one firm larger than a dozen attorneys, and there isn't all that much work. That point was driven home at ETLS's first meeting with the bar. "A leader of the bar got up there," Thomas recalls, "and said that 'in East Texas there were good lean hunting dogs who had to hunt and chase for their meals and fat, lazy kennel dogs that lay around all day and just got fed.' We were the kennel dogs. It was the most hostile reaction I have ever seen."

To the Taxarkana bar, the poor community's priorities seemed upside down. To them, Legal Services was the firm of last resort, the attorney, who should handle only divorces, Social Security challenges and child custody work -- the cases that simply don't pay enough and aren't interesting enough for the private bar to handle.

Soon after ETLS opened its Texarkana office, it had more work than it could handle, and many of these clients were turned away in keeping with the original client perference poll. Bewildered, they went back to their refering attorneys. These lawyers, who would then pick up the paper and see Legal Services filing suits on behalf of the poor against cities they don't believe are discriminatory, could only assume that ETLS was shrinking its mandate.

It did not matter, nor did most realize, that the headline cases were exactly what the poor had asked for -- and that the Texarkana office was actually stretching its limits by doing 28 percent divorce work. The private practitioners only saw poor clients who had been rejected by ETLS lawyers or told to wait six months before their divorce cases could be taken. But if anything, ETLS had been running counter to its clients' wishes by having only a few class action suits on the books.

When Thomas opened the Texarkana office in 1978, the situation also called for delicate staffing. Thomas needed an experienced attorney at the helm who would blend in, meet the commuity's needs without angering the local bar and set an example of hard work and dilligence, a juggling act that few could perform. Unfortunately, Thomas got just the opposite in Yvonne Huges, a black lawyer from Michigan who, by all accounts, semed bent on antagonizing everyone.

Within months after her arrival, Texarkana attorneys -- including the lawyers who had urged ETLS to open in the area originally -- were screaming for her head. About six months later Hughes was fired. But the damage had been done.

Financial jealousy played still another role in heightening tensions. ETLS busted Texardana's wage scale for legal secretaries by bumping up the prevailing ceiling of $700 a month by $200. The result was that ETLS became a magnet for some of the best secretaries in town, creating financial strains on firms that had to meet the new wage scale just to maintain the status quo.

But ETLS didn't just irritate the smaller, one-horse operations. It chose to rub federal affluence in the face of all of the Texarkana firms by spurning a change to rent humble quarters downtown and instead building a fancy, red-brick, ranch-style office in a somewhat fashionable part of town. As with all other legal services offices, the budget also allowed for the purchase of $1,100 IBM Selectric typewriters, $525 Sony dictators, $560 desks and $580 transcribers. Plush brown carpets were chosen to line the halls and the library was stocked with a selection of texts that put most other law libraries in town to shame.

Thomas says he doesn't think those appurtances are out of line. "We did not want cheap metal desks or gray walls and concrete floors," he says. "Just because these people are poor doesn't mean they should have rat-infested surroundings." The plush appointments also boost morale and combat staff turnover, a problem that plagues all Legal Services offices, says Thomas.

While he was contending with staunch opponents outside ETLS, Thomas' nonconfrontational sytle was taking its toll internally. Several members of the staff, including Clyde Lee and John Buckley, accused Thomas of not letting them file big class action suits. Lee, now in private practice, railed in an interview for several hours about the hamstrung bureaucracy of the program and the insensitive aproach of Thomas. "If Legal Services had done its job in East Texas, if it had done what it was charged to do, there would be no way in hell that Congressman Hall could sponsor that legislation. There would be people in the streets saying 'no,' poor people making a stand."

Buckley, also in private practice now, says, "The very reason that Hall attacked Legal Services were the reasons it got funded in the first place and the reasons I joined. We were supposed to stir things up in East Texas."

Right down the hall from Buckley's law office in Texarkana, Louis Mathis, another lawyer now in private practice, was chafing because he thought there was too much pressure to file class action suits. "We were told to go knock on doors, to file suits against five cities," says Mathis. "Some of those cities simply had no discrimination."

It's not clear whose preception of ETLS is right: Thomas insists both sides are wrong. But instead of canceling each other out, these lawyers have fueled both conservative and liberal critics of the program.

Lost in all the sqabbling is some very fine legal work that has brought genuine results results to poor people in the Texarkana area. One suit prodded the Texarkana Housing Authority into applying for federal funds to build 150 new units of low income housing. Another integrated a pool in nearby Jacksonville. The office has battled for a rural medical clinic -- a case that has generated much animosity from the medical community, a letter-writing campaign to Rep. Hall branding ETLS attorneys as socialists, a state bar grievance proceeding brought by a doctor and a series of defeats in recent hearings.

Echoing former Longview ETLS attorney Carolyn Scott's sentiment that if only critics were aware of the work Legal Services had done, they would endorse it, Texarkana ETLS attorney Marilyn Rauch wrote to Thomas, saying. "I would like Mr. Hall, before he is totally convinced by the local doctors who have complained to him, to come here and speak to my client who sufferred a miscarriage this spring because she could not get into a doctor's office or a hospital. I would like him to talk to the woman in Bowie County whose daughter died of pneumonia in the recent past because they could not afford medical care. I would like him to talk to the legion of clients who have been defendants in debt collection suits filed by local doctors and hospitals and whose nonexempt personal property is therefore in jeopardy all the time."

Somehow the word hasn't gotten out in town about these achievements or about how the office has handled hundreds achievements or about how the office has handled hundreds of divorce and Social Security-related matters. Those who might be expected to support ETLS in the face of onslaughts from Hall, such as community and church leaders, haven't even heard of ETLS.

Perhaps the best way to sort things out about East Texas Legal Services is to say that its attorneys have been paid the highest compliment by East Texans: They are drawing condemnation from both extrmemes. The social activitists yearn for more noisy class actons and antagonistic stand against the power structure. The conservatives will seethe until Legal Services turns into nothing more than a dumping ground for nonpaying divorces or until it is dismantled altogether. ETLS hasn't calmed the conservatives with its low-key approach, and old-time liberals think that until it gets on the local front page for something other than a dentist boycott ETLS won't be doing its job. There is not much ETLS can do to appease either extreme without derailing the priorities of the poor. CAPTION:

Illustration, no caption. By Ian Worpole in The American Lawyer; Map, Offices of East Texas Legal Services, By Richard Furno -- The Washington Post