I read with much interest the article about the Supreme Court raising its fee limit for court-appointed attorneys in capital cases to $5,000 {Jan. 25.} While I share some of the anger and indignation of Vivian Berger, the Columbia Law professor who "won" the increase, I also believe her anger is somewhat misdirected.

As a law student at Georgetown University who plans to serve indigent clients when I graduate, I know all too well the dearth of legal resources for have-nots. In addition to the fact that the pay is incredibly low (in many cases probably lower than the $17 per hour Vivian Berger received in her case), the funding is so limited that many lawyers who would like to practice in the Public Defender Service or legal services agencies must be turned away.

But with all this inequity, I'm not really sure the government is the best place to seek change. Certainly Vivian Berger was correct in stating that the Supreme Court sends a powerful message in setting attorney fees. But those cases are paid for by the government of a country that is in a recession and that has proved quite well that it cannot manage its finances. Meanwhile, she is surrounded in New York (as we are here in Washington) by hundreds if not thousands of lawyers who are charging $395 per hour. I have yet to meet a human being whose abilities are worth $395 an hour. Isn't there a better way to spend that kind of money?

In theory, lawyers are to adhere to standards of professional responsibility. I quote from the ABA's Model Code of Professional Responsibility, Ethical Consideration 2-25: "Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, should find time to participate in serving the disadvantaged. The rendition of free legal services to those unable to pay reasonable fees continues to be an obligation of each lawyer, but the efforts of individual lawyers are often not enough to meet the need."

Now, I suspect that most of the lawyers in this country who are charging fees of $200 and up per hour have limited expertise in criminal law. But that need not foreclose their aid to indigent clients. Through their firms, they could establish legal defense funds: they could hire one or more associates per year who would specialize in criminal defense and thereby carry the bulk of the firm's legal aid obligation. They could target current associates and partners with an interest in criminal law, free them for additional training if needed and credit their billable time for their efforts on behalf of indigents -- without limit. And criminal law need not be the only area in which law firms do more.

Several firms in Washington have already adopted some of these proposals. Hogan and Hartson, for example, has a full-time partner coordinating pro bono work and is generous in freeing up other lawyers to help. Dickstein, Shapiro and Moran also emphasizes pro bono work and allows its attorneys to bill their pro bono hours as regular time. But these firms cannot carry the load alone.

Vivian Berger had good reason to be angry about the financial barriers facing indigent defendants. But instead of looking to the government for help, I believe she should be looking to her colleagues in private firms who not only have the financial resources but also have the ethical obligation to do more.