AT JONES, DAY, REAVIS & POGUE, as at many law firms, the verdict comes in a phone call home after business hours, announcing the decision of the partners. Some time later, if the news is good, there is the formality of a stiff, congratulatory handshake from senior partner Welch Pogue. But if it is bad, there is no handshake -- only the embarrassed looks of colleagues, the search for another job and, for many, a profound sense of personal failure.

Making partner. In the high-powered world of the big Washington law firm, this is what the 80-hour weeks, the personal sacrifices and the scramble to impress superiors is all about. So pivotal is this moment in the life of a lawyer that author Louis Auchincloss has written that what follows is "a lifetime of anticlimax."

Those who make the cut can look forward to rewards that are almost without precedent in American life: status; powerful clients; security, and an annual income that can easily exceed $250,000 a year. But for those passed over -- a group whose ranks have grown dramatically in the relative hard times of the last several years -- the fall is hard and frequently traumatic.

Lawyers who do not make partner, of course, are in no danger of starving. But their experience provides a revealing glimpse of the down side of life at the outer limits of the American success ethic. Almost all of the young men and women who aspire to become partners in the big firms have bought the notion that success and riches could be achieved with brains, determination and prodigious hard work. They have spent most of their adult lives convinced that they have the "right stuff." With good reason. With few exceptions, they have been on a track of non-stop success, graduating at the top of their classes and being courted by the country's top law firms. And then, abruptly, comes the bewildering reality that this is not enough.

Harry F. Cole will be 34 on Oct. 18, but for him the date carries an unhappy memory. It was on that day in 1981 that the partnership of Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn, Washington's sixth largest law firm, met to decide whether he would become a partner. So sure were Cole's colleagues that he would be chosen, that they held a joint birthday and partnership party for him at Morocco's, an Italian restaurant near the firm.

Cole was to be officially informed of the decision when he returned home, but when he got to the party the word was already out.

"I knew within a moment, a nanosecond, of walking into the restaurant that it was all over. I hadn't made it. I had told myself to be prepared for this; it could always happen. But you're never really prepared for anything like this.

We tried to make the best of it. We took refuge in humor -- a lot of good news, bad news jokes about it. But it was a difficult evening.

"I got home early, around 11. I got a call from a representative of the partnership committee giving me the bad news, offering condolences. Then I tried to get to sleep. It wasn't easy. A lot was going on in my head. I finally fell asleep saying, "F - - - it, I won't go back in there."

As it turned out, Cole did go to work the next day after all.

"I had spent the night trying to rationalize what had happened. If I accepted the decision as a rational one, I was going to have internal problems. So I concluded it was crazy. But when I got on the elevator, it began to come apart. People didn't want to look me in the eye. I walked around in a daze."

At the obligatory meeting with a member of the partnership committee, Cole was told he should have gotten to know more partners better; that he should have had more lunches. "It amounted to an image problem," Cole concluded.

During the first weeks after the decision, Cole felt "empty, rejected. I wasn't getting much work done, I was preoccupied, couldn't concentrate. I hadn't had to deal with rejection before. I had shaped my life according to the approved model. Amherst says you're okay, Boston University says you're okay. You get a great job at the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) and then go to one of the best law firms. By that time, you trust the establishment with your self-esteem because it's always told you good things about yourself. Then wham."

Cole refers to this period as "the most introspective I've ever had.

"It's people who don't really know you who are the biggest hurdle. Those who know you say Arent, Fox was stupid. Those who don't say you must be."

Cole toyed with the idea of staying, encouraged by several older lawyers to wait another year and try for partner again. But when the call came from former Arent, Fox partner Gene A. Bechtel to join a medium-sized firm as a partner, Cole took him up on the offer. As far as Bechtel was concerned, "Harry was the best communications lawyer they (Arent, Fox) had, incredibly talented, unique."

So why did this happen to Harry Cole, a man who had been a star in every firmament he entered -- a man who dressed and looked the part of the successful, big time Washington attorney? Tall, fit, and well-tailored in his conservative suit, he looked like a charter member of the Establishment, and in a sense he was.

A top student and athlete in his hometown of Providence, R.I., Cole later graduated magna cum laude from Amherst, winning an American Studies award for his senior thesis: "Rock Music and Youth Culture in America, 1960-1969." On the side, he played lead guitar in the campus' most popular band.

Cole went on to Boston University Law School where he directed moot court competition and wrote the Land Development Law Opera, which was included as light relief in a legal textbook. The "opera" has arias entitled "A Mortgage to Wrap Around You" and ann"Ode to Fannie Mae."

Wanting to merge an interest in music with a legal practice, Cole accepted an offer from the FCC's broadcast bureau. A little less than two years later, Arent, Fox lured him away. There, he became editor of a newsletter, wrote several columns for broadcast trade publications, and played a major role in the landmark Pacifica case. (He lost the case, but it helped him carve out a niche as an up-and-coming communications lawyer.)

Cole followed the usual course of 16-hour days and weekend duty, billing well over 2,000 hours a year for six years. He bought a house in Virginia, but guests sat on lawn chairs. There wasn't time to furnish it.

Thomas Schattenfield, the senior communications lawyer at Arent, Fox, describes Cole as "one of a kind. He took a moribund newsletter and made it something special." He was also good at the nuts and bolts of lawyering. "A group of us could sit and toss ideas around and Harry would leave the room and come back with 10 pages of prose that crystallized what we were talking about. Harry had more to him than most and that made him a better lawyer. He also worked his butt off."

As it turned out, though, none of that was enough to win Harry Cole a partnership with Arent, Fox.

Schattenfield says the reasons are involved and complicated. He admits he doesn't fully understand the partnership committee's decision. "I wanted him here. Some people only want lawyers who live and die, eat and sleep the law. Harry has more to him than that. He's a fine lawyer but obviously not everyone thought so."

It's almost two years now since Cole took up the offer to join the smaller firm. It has prospered, adding new lawyers and changing its name to Flood, Bechtel, Ward & Cole. Cole spends more time composing music and performing than he ever did at Arent, Fox. He even performed regularly on DC 101's top-rated Howard Stern show until Stern left Washington for a quarter-million dollar contract with WABC in New York.

Cole acknowledges that the Arent, Fox rejection still hurts. "In some eyes, you're always damaged goods. You're like couldn't Roger Maris with an asterisk beside his name in the record books. Sure, he hit all those homers but remember, fans, it was a long season. If you don't make partner, you're in the same situation. You'll always have an asterisk beside your name."

What happened to Harry Cole was more unusual in 1981 than today. Until recently, most lawyers at the big firms made partner if they stuck out the grind. But the boom years in Washington law appear to be over. Partners in the city's major law firms sit atop empires that grew 10 percent or so a year since the early '70s. The city's largest firms -- Covington & Burling, Steptoe & Johnson and Arnold & Porter -- employ hundreds of attorneys and earn more than $30 million a year.

But recession and deregulation are reversing this trend. Some of Washington's oldest, most stable firms actually shrank last year. Covington & Burling, instead of adding lawyers, slipped from 219 to 214; Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering from 148 to 139, and Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue from 71 to 62. This pattern was typical.

For those perched at the top of the legal pyramid, such as Thomas Hale (Tommy) Boggs, the $500,000 a year or more senior partner of Patton, Boggs & Blow, life continues to be a comfortable, six-figure existence.

Such incomes do not even raise eyebrows in the legal community anymore. The year before he joined the Carter administration, Joseph A. Califano was earning close to that sum at his firm of Williams, Connolly and Califano. Associates at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering talk about how senior partner Lloyd Cutler takes only $350,000 a year from his firm, when he could draw out $500,000. It's no longer just the big stars who make that much. Lynn Coleman, former deputy secretary of energy, joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and was making a reported $400,000 a year before his 43d birthday. But that is less than Coleman's partner, Joseph H. Flom, who tops the $1 million mark annually.

It is those at the bottom of the pyramid -- associates who endure legal boot for as long as seven years in hope of getting a piece of the partnership pie -- whose opportunities have narrowed.

The phenomenal growth in the '70s obscured the inequities in the partnership system. As long as firms were expanding, new associates could be hired, veteran associates could become partners, and senior partners could draw out huge sums. But the slowdown has revealed the feudal underpinnings of the partnership system.

The system calls for an associate's billings to be triple his or her salary. Typically, a first-year associate will bill clients for 2000 hours of legal services at $65 an hour -- a total of $130,000. The associate gets $40,000 in salary; the other $90,000 goes to the firm.

Partners bill more, of course -- some as much as $300 an hour -- but they do so at a more leisurely pace, closer to 1,000 hours a year than 2,000, and pocket more of what they bring in. Very senior partners often don't bring in enough to cover their own "draw" and the overhead costs they generate. That's why for every Robert S. Strauss billing a corporate client $500 for the privilege of dining with him at Mel Krupin's, there are two associates back at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld numbering footnotes and hoping to get time for a sandwich at the vending machine.

The system only breaks down when there are not enough clients walking in the door to keep those associates busy and not enough money coming in for the partners to admit others to the club without jeopardizing their own draw. And without the lure of partnership, associates are not as motivated to put in the mind- numbing hours the system requires.

There are, of course, options to cutting down on partnerships. Senior partners could settle for, say, an annual draw of $250,000 instead of $300,000. Orrthe firm could, as one disappointed associate from Arnold & Porter suggested, "sell part of the quarter-million dollar art collection." But that isn't likely, human nature being what it is.

Ine couldn't stead, associates are being passed over in record numbers. Last year, 13 of them left Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, most because it was clear they were not going to make partner. Arnold & Porter made only five new partners last year. Among those who did not make the grade were a Rhodes scholar, a Harvard Law Review editor and a Yale Law Journal member. Hogan & Hartson made two associates partners in 1982 from an original class of 16 that joined the firm in 1975.

Of course, no one expects all first- year associates to ultimately make partner. There are dropouts, sometimes because a young lawyer voluntarily decides to try government or academia, and sometimes because the firm itself gives an early warning. Most firms have yearly evaluations aimed at weeding out at least by the fourth year those who won't make partner. The complaint is mainly from those who have made these cuts and assumed they were on track.

Those who are passed over find themselves in a limbo where they have to find another job fast, although there are a few firms that give some of those who miss out a second chance. "There is a loss of confidence on both sides," says managing partner Arthur J. Rothkopf of Hogan & Hartson. "An associate who stays around too long becomes a financial drag on the firm."

"Keeping an associate around who has not made partner is like living with a dead body," says Susan Miller, who heads a Washington employment service for lawyers.

It's hard for people who have enjoyed a life of accomplishment and advantage, gone to the best schools and, been sought out by the best law firms to elicit sympathy when they stumble. But it is at those heights that the stress is the greatest and the fall the most dizzying.

The death of a woman associate at a Washington law firm from an overdose of sleeping pills at least raises questions about just how stressful the climb to partnership can be. Former colleagues and friends say she was distraught after an end-of-the-year review in which she was told she was not partnership material. A senior partner at the firm says there is no connection between the suicide and anything that happened at the firm.

Prof. James E. Starr, of the George Washington University National Law Center, who employed and taught the associate, describes her as "one of the brightest, most alert students I have ever had. She could handle anything and had no emotional problems that I could see. There is nothing that can explain such a tragedy but what happened at the firm must have been a crushing blow to one so successful and so bright."

Not all associates who don't make partner are hiding in silent shame. Elizabeth Hischon, a 1972 honors graduate of Columbia University Law School, sued the Atlanta law firm of King & Spalding when she didn't make partner and was fired under the firm's "up or out" policy. In the suit, she says she received outstanding evaluations during her six years as an associate and was led to believe she would become a partner. The Supreme Court will hear the case this fall.

"It doesn't get any better," said one associate who is still working at a firm where he was passed over while looking for another job. "My stomach still churns when I walk in the door. You learn sadly that no matter what they said about being on a team, it's their game, their field, their ball and their rules. And when you're out of the game, it's final and forever, and there's no place to go. No ego is that strong."

Under the unwritten code of the big firms, an associate who doesn't make it at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering is unlikely to be taken in by, say, Steptoe & Johnson. So a passed over associate has to move into an entirely new universe -- one he didn't consider before -- of small firms, government or corporations.

But in the recent recession, those options in Washington dried up. One passed over associate at Arnold & Porter moved across the country to find another job in a small firm, uprooting his lawyer-wife in the process.

"Pe couldn't ople ask why not making partner causes such depression among lawyers," he said. "Well, if you were to live with your colleagues night and day for seven years in a club-like, almost family atmosphere, do your absolute best, and then get pushed out, how would you feel, expecially when there is no other comparable place to go? Like a big chunk of your life is gone. Like you've been betrayed. No one comes out whole."