For many of his 56 years, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Wade H. McCree Jr. has been setting precedents. Not legal precedents so much as social ones, being the first or second or third black to hold the jobs he's had as his career prospered.

The difference is important. McCree, the choice of Attorney General-designate Griffin B. Bell for Solicitor General, says he does not like to characterize himself as an "activist" judge.

But in his 10 years on the bench, in Detroit and the surrounding area covered a reputation for careful, work-manlike attention to the individual liberties of those who come before him.

"He does tend to come down more on the side of the defendant than some other judges on this circuit," said one of his law clerks.

It's the role McCree says he's proudest of.

"I would define myself as a person who's very much concerned about the importance of preserving individual liberties in a country that continues to grow in size, complexity and inter-dependence," he said.

"I am very much concerned to see that the social imperatives of a large country . . . do not encroach any more than they necessarily must on individual rights and freedoms."

If McCree is nominated and confirmed as the second black solicitor general in history (the first was Thurgood Marshall, now a Supreme Court justice), he might play a very large role in how far the federal government is willing to go to protect those rights and freedoms, which McCree notes include freedom from interference with one's mail, telephone calls and associations.

The solicitor general, who argues cases for the government before the Supreme Court, wields a behind-the-scenes power in large part on his personal relationship with his boss, the Attorney General.

McCree has said he does not anticipate any philosophical conflict with Bell, whom he has known for 15 years and worked with closely on various judicial boards and commissions.

"It is possible to disagree on the effectiveness of remedies," McCree said, "and I would expect that we might at various times have some disagreement. But not on goals."

McCree said in a telephone interview that he agrees with Bell's description of himself in Senate confirmation hearings last week as a "moderate."

Bell has come under intense fire from liberals, civil rights and womens' groups for his role as a legal adviser to former Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver in the period of "massive resistance" to school desegregation during the 1950s, and for his 1970 recommendation of Fifth Circuit colleague G. Harrold Carswell for the Supreme Court.

McCree said he didn't know enough about Bell's role in the Carswell affair to be "completely responsive." But he said he could "imagine the institutional pressures that would be exerted on somebody to make an endorsement of a colleague."

"If it went beyond that I would find it disturbing . . .," he said, "but if that's all it was, it wouldn't make me say he was disqualified or unqualified to serve as Attorney General."

McCree wrote the opinion affirming a school busing plan for Pontiac, Mich., and voted for busing plans in Detroit and Louisville, Ky.

Those who know him describe him as careful, reserved, dignified, thorough and thoughful, with a sense of humor, but something of a loner in terms of the black camaraderie and palling around that goes on in Detroit, where he lives.

Among his closest friends, he says, are some of his classmates - now famous - from the Harvard Law School class of 1948.

One is Transportation Secretary William Coleman, the only black named to a Cabinet position by President Ford. Coleman had nothing but praise for McCree, calling him "bright, quick . . . very sophisticated . . . one of the three or four best judges now sitting in the U.S. appeals court.

"He has a lot of concerns other than just being a judge," Coleman said.

"He's interested in the art museum . . . his college, Fisk University . . . he was close to Walter Reuther and I think Leonard Woodcock, and the auto manufacturers. Wade's been very civilized, all around man . . ."

Similiar praise comes from McCree's good friend, Commerce Secretary Elliot L. Richardson.

Richardson, who served with McCree recently on the Harvard board of overseers, tells a story which he says illustrates McCree's "quite puckish" sense of humor.

At an American Bar Association bicentennial meeting in Atlanta last August, he said, McCree was on a panel where Britons went on so long about the "merits of the distinction between barristers and solicitors" that McCree decided he had time only to recite a two-verse limerick on the subject which he wrote while the others were droning on. The first verse:

"In England there is the Solicitor,

"An office attorney, Simpliciter;

"He can't go to court

"In Contract or Tort

"But the British believe it's Feliciter."

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, McCree is the son of a pharmacist turned federal narcotics inspector. His father's job took the family to Hawaii, CHicago and Boston, where McCree graduated from the prestigious Boston Latin School.

After graduating summa cum laude from Fisk in 1941 he entered Harvard Law School which, he said, did not discriminate against him, but would not admit women.

He interrupted law school to serve in an all-black unit of the then-segregated Army. "My only two integrated experiences were in Ft. Benning, Ga., where they frankly admitted it was too expensive to have separate facilitis, and serving in Italy," he said.

"When I came out of the service there was no opportunity to join prestigious law firms."

After finishing law school he moved to Detroit to open a law practice. In 1954 he was appointed to a vacancy on the Wayne County (Detroit) Circuit Court by then - Gov. G. Mennen Williams, and a year later became the first black to win election to that court.

In 1961 he became the second black named by President Kennedy to a U.S. District Court judgeship. In 1966, President Johnson made him the first black on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

When the court is not sitting in Cincinnati, McCree lives with his wife, Dores, and his 89-year-old mother in Detroit. The McCrees have three children, one of whom is a lawyer.