THOUGH THERE are many responsible educators, city officials and legal scholars who continue to believe that the University of the District of Columbia neither needs nor can afford a public law school, the proposal is anything but dead. It's still an idea whose time shouldn't come, but a political compromise may at least keep it in the wings for a while. Mayor Barry, who until now saw no strong reason for UDC to absorb whatever is left of the Antioch School of Law, has agreed to work with the D.C. Council and UDC's board of trustees toward some kind of law school some day -- though not a reincarnated, modified or camouflaged Antioch. He should have held firm, but given the fact that 11 of 13 council members favor a public law school, the compromise does buy enough time for better sense to prevail.

Aides to the mayor say the new agreement -- if accepted by UDC's trustees, which is no sure thing -- would provide for a complete, fresh study of the need for, and financing of, a law school. Whatever law school might be agreed to would come as a result of a feasibility study -- which is part of the process for accreditation by the American Bar Association.

Specifically, the agreement changes the council measure by 1) dropping a requirement that staff and faculty currently employed by Antioch be hired; 2) putting the existing law school under the immediate control of UDC, with a subordinate board; 3) putting the school under a separate budget from that of the rest of the university, with safeguards against any reprogrammings between the two.

The reading between the lines still seems to say a law school will materialize -- and that should not be agreed to at this point. Accreditation -- which includes some proof there is a special pool of students here who need unique services -- as well as realistic financial estimates and consideration of UDC's other, more important, more immediate concerns should precede any official commitment to maintain a public law school. UDC's trustees should work to modify the agreement to make these conditions clear.