IT IS WELL KNOWN that the Washington metropolitan area has more lawyers, more museums and more civil servants per capita than anyplace else in the country. But the area also enjoys distinction in another, less remarked realm, one that touches and improves the lives of countless citizens: the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia is the fastest federal court in the nation.

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the court, which sits in Alexandria, Richmond and Norfolk, consistently beats all the other 93 federal district courts in elapsed time between the filing of a civil suit and the beginning of a trial. In some areas it takes more than two years to get a case ready for trial; the average elapsed time is 14 months. But in the Eastern District of Virginia, it's five months. That kind of efficiency produces tremendous benefits for litigants -- and even for their lawyers, who sometimes initially resist the rigid timetables imposed by the court. Delay costs money. A lot of money. Repeated motions, extended pretrial discovery and multiple continuances mean large legal fees and, often, financial burdens that must be carried for many months while the payment of damages is held up. Even worse, a drawn-out, inefficient court experience sharpens the animosity between parties to a lawsuit and diminishes the public's confidence in the judicial process.

The streamlining of procedures in the Eastern District is due entirely to the 12 judges who constitute the court. Their model is Judge Walter Hoffman of Norfolk, who at 80 is now semi-retired. He devised a set of time-cutting tactics that enabled him to clear a substantial backlog and keep his court on top of its workload.

In essence, the system involves setting firm dates and keeping them. Hearings and trials are scheduled early. Pretrial investigation is limited, as is the number of character and expert witnesses at trial. Stipulations are strongly encouraged so that precious time won't be wasted proving facts that all parties agree to accept. Judge Richard Williams, a member of the court, says that it is no more complicated than making clear to the litigants and their lawyers that the judge is in charge and that he will not tolerate delaying tactics. Any court in the country could do as much, he says. And every one would be well advised to look to Virginia as a model.