THE D.C. BOARD of Education has paid a private law firm about $3.5 million to help the board prepare its part of the city government's $400 million lawsuit against manufacturers who produced and supplied the asbestos used in city buildings. The rest of the city government chose to avoid outside lawyers. The $3.5 million cost is too high a price to pay, but were the school board's actions justified? To answer the question, one should look beyond the dollar amounts involved.

In similar situations around the country, the asbestos-related lawsuits filed on behalf of local governments have used private attorneys. In most of those cases, however, the lawyers are working for localities on a contingency basis. That means the lawyers don't get paid until the case is over, but then they usually receive about 25 to 40 percent of the award. The District government decided to avoid all outside legal bills and has relied on its own Corporation Counsel's office to handle the lawsuit.

But contingency arrangements in such cases have been sought with good reason. Too few of these cases have been decided, and the rest are expected to drag on for years. Asbestos-related lawsuits are also very complicated cases that involve documenting which companies were responsible for making and installing the asbestos in hundreds of buildings.

School Board President David Hall said the board did not have the authority to enter a contingency agreement. But school board officials say they hired a law firm anyway because they were unwilling to gamble on the Corporation Counsel's ability to document -- within a limited time period -- asbestos problems involving 40 possible companies and 2,000 buildings. The money to pay the lawyers has come from the school system's capital budget for asbestos removal. In a similar lawsuit in Philadelphia, the school board decided that its 500 building asbestos lawsuits would be too difficult to handle without outside legal help.

Attorneys familiar with the case have said that the city's lawyers are far behind in collecting and computerizing the information needed to document the city's asbestos problems. If that is the case, then the Corporation Counsel deserves as much scrutiny as the school board. The school board's decision to seek outside legal help seems justified, but it can and should obtain a less expensive arrangemen