WHEN HE RESIGNED as president of the Legal Services Corporation in 1982, Dan Bradley was the highest ranking federal official to have admitted publicly that he was gay. His decision to speak out was not a preemptive one taken because public exposure was imminent. It was made, he said, because after five psychiatrists and 15 years of therapy, the pain of the duplicity of his hidden life had become unbearable. Last Friday Mr. Bradley died of AIDS in Miami, where he had lived and practiced law since leaving the government.

In recent years, the former poverty lawyer was best known as an advocate of gay rights. He chaired an American Bar Association committee on this issue, and as a person with AIDS, he was a diligent and effective fund-raiser for the cause of education and research. But Dan Bradley once said that he was confident he would be judged after his death not on the basis of his sexuality but by his life's work for the poor.

An orphan at 5, he was raised in an institution and devoted his professional career to protecting the rights of others who were disadvantaged. As soon as he finished law school, he took a job representing migrant farm workers in Florida, and then spent 10 years with the legal services arm of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1979 President Carter appointed him to head the independent Legal Services Corporation, which was created to provide legal assistance to the poor in civil matters. The program has at times been controversial and during his tenure was threatened with extinction. But Mr. Bradley's colleagues and supporters on Capitol Hill believe the agency survives today because of his personal efforts to fight the Reagan administration's plans to abolish it.

In an era when many young professionals are criticized for choosing careers where money is the only reward, it is good to remember that there are many who use their education, energy and talent to better the lives of the poor, the disabled and those who suffer discrimination. Dan Bradley was one of these.