A MOVE by law students to make courses in pro-bono law mandatory for a law degree is the best thing to come off the campuses in almost 20 years.

It may be even better than it looks, in that it could mean that students have come out of their long snooze and are taking the first tentative steps back to the idealism that seized them in the early '60s.

At a press conference of the National Association for Public Interest Law, consumer advocate Ralph Nader proclaimed the event as a sure sign that the '80s, the decade of greed and self-absorption, are at last over.

The young people around him didn't seem to know or care about that. When asked what had roused them, they looked blank. For the last three years, apparently, they have been so busy agitating and organizing for mandatory courses in public-interest law that they didn't hear the alarm clock.

Their spokesman, Steven Danziger, a third-year student at Harvard, said the legal system doesn't come close to the concept of "Equal Justice Under Law," the legend carved into the Supreme Court facade. Nine out of 10 people do not have their legal needs met, according to the American Bar Association.

The pro-bono association's goal is that the nation's 129,000 law students each contribute 50 hours a year before graduation. It has representatives at 100 out of 175 law schools, where 54 percent of the students voted for mandatory pro-bono courses. Only four law schools have such a program now. They are Tulane, Florida State, Pennsylvania and Valparaiso.

It's enormously encouraging, and not only to the poor people who will directly benefit from expert, free intervention in their hitherto hopeless quarrels with landlords or bureaucrats. The rest of us can look forward to having lawyers who have been exposed to the real, raw needs of the community and may even understand that there is more to life than a berth at a posh Wall Street firm.

It's all a nice contrast to other contemporary campus images. We have hate-filled, heavily subsidized right-wing publications. We see racial demonstrations on the rise. Campus rape is increasing.

Students opted out of national politics for good in 1972, after a brief fling with the anti-war campaign of Sen. George McGovern, for whom they did not bother to vote at the end of the day. In 1988, only 36.2 percent of them turned up at the polls -- half the turnout by voters 45 and older.

Today's admirable agitators have given up on the federal government. The Great Society's 1965 effort to help equalize justice and provide legal services for the poor epitomized all that was wrong with government to Ronald Reagan -- who was overwhelmingly supported by the youth who troubled to vote at all in 1984 and 1988.

As governor of California, Reagan did everything he could to kill the infant legal-services program in its crib. He saw it as an academy for radicals, a nursery for riot and subversion. When he got to the White House, he and Attorney General Edwin Meese stacked the board of the Legal Services Corp. with nay-saying conservatives, cut its funds to the bone. So these students have taken the fight, quite rightly, to the schools. They pay enormous sums to learn, and what better time in life is there to embark on the adventure of helping others?

The students are inevitably encountering resistance from their elders in university faculties and administrations, some of whom have probably given fervent speeches against the apathy and stupor of our youth. Some profess to be offended by the "coercive" nature of the program. Some say they do not need it because they already have "clinics" where students volunteer their services for the disadvantaged.

Partisans of mandatory courses say university sponsorship would ensure universal participation and bring home to students the fact that studying pro bono is as important as mastering torts and contracts.

Dean Robert Clark of the Harvard Law School dismissed pro bono as one of several proposed "guilt-alleviating activities."

The ultimate reason he gave for rejection, however, occasioning a certain mirth, was that "we can't afford them."

Harvard's endowment in 1989 was $4.479 billion.

Jason Adkins, a third-year Harvard Law School student and ardent pro-bono advocate, says students awakened last November when the Berlin Wall fell. They had been watching as students ran revolutions in China and Korea. When their contemporaries stepped into the vanguard in Eastern Europe, especially Czechoslovakia, the students decided they had to join their times and do what they could to improve them.

We should cheer them on.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.