Depsite the surplus of lawyers in the country, students scheduled to graduate from the Harvard University law school next June already are in a buyers' market.

In one day last week, 22 organizations, including leading New York, Washington, Houston and Chicago law firms, converged on the Harvard campus seeking next June's top graduates at salaries reportedly as high as $28,000 a year.

Yet the situation appears bleak for law students at schools of lesser rank and even for those near the bottom of their classes at the topranked schools. Labor Department estimates show that only 21,000 jobs in the legal profession await next June's 30,000 law school graduates and that by 1985 as many as 100,000 lawyers may not be able to find jobs.

"The best people are sought by scads of employers, and other people have a hard time getting a job," said Leon Irish, partner in charge of hiring at Caplin & Drysdale, a highly respected Washington firm sepcializing in tax law.

Added Eleanor Appel, Harvard's placement director, "the number of openings for topflight students from topflight schools probably exceeds the number of students."

"If you are in the bottom half of your class, even at Harvard or Yale, you are in trouble," said a partner in a well-known law firm.

"And if you are at the bottom half of your class at Virginia, George Washington or Georgetown (law schools of the second rank), you will never get on with a good firm.If you are not on the Law Review, your resume will probably never even get o a partner's desk," the partner said.

While expansion of major law firms has increased their need for beginning lawyers, partners at such firms insist they are not lowering their standards. In fact, one lawyer said, "a lot of successful partners . . . could not get hired today by their own firms."

"We are essentially looking for someone in the top 10 per cent of his class at a good law school who is on the Law Review. We are looking for raw legal talent," Irish said.

Such requirements were echoed by recruiting partners in other major firms in Washington, New York and Chicago. From September through Decmeber, they spend as much as 40 per cent of their time - which could be charged to clients at rates ranging from $100 to $250 an hour for their usual legal work-recruiting new legal talent.

Graduates of second and third-ranked law schools and those who finish toward the bottom of their class in the best schools are lucky to obtain jobs in smaller law firms or in cities rated less desirables.

The difference is measured not only in prestige and a potentially more interesting practice but in cold cash.

A survey in this month's issue of Student Lawyer, a magazine published by the American Bar Association, found that starting lawyers in leading New York and Washington firms earn between $25,000 and $28,000 a year and that starting lawyers at lesser firms in other cities earn $11,000.

"It's almost like two separate markets," said Gary Munneke, president of the National Association of Law Placement and placement director at the University of Texas in Austin.

This is the height of the recruiting season, with Dec. 15 the date when law students either must accept or reject any job offers they receive.

While most law students dress casually, usually those seeing the recruiters look like the corporate lawyers many aspire to be. The young men replaced their jeans and down vests with three-piece suits, the women with tailored suits, stocking and heels.

Actually the job pressures begin almost the moment a student enters law school. According to Scoot Turow, whose recently published book "One L" chronicles his first year at Harvard law school, one of the clearest messages . . . was of the paramount importance of grades . . . which determined exactly how high in the legal world you were going to rise."

While the average student may sweat out a job, the best students can pick and choose. The best law firms not only are willing to offer them large salaries but are willing to fly them across the country to the home office for wining and dining by the firm's partners.

The student's initial choice may well determine his future legal career. If he lands with a major law firm, he is well on his way to becoming a partner in eight to 10 years and eventually earning a salary fo $100,000 a year or more.

"On both sides of the fence, it's a very competitive thing. "It's the life-blood of the law firms. It's success or failure for the student," Harvard's Appel said.

But she called the process "very sadistic" on the part of the law firms and "degrading to the profession."

"It's almost as if they look at the students more carefully than anyone looks at a husband or a wife," she said.

Michael K. Magness, placement director at New York University law school, called the hiring process "a meat market," and jane Thieberger, NYU law's career counselor, said "The law firms don't have the time to find out if there's hidden talent. People have to meet minimum paper credentials."

On the other hand, most recruiters for the major law firms recognize the harshness of their decisions and wish for a better way to make the cuts.

But they agree almost uniformly that the training received in the top ranking law schools produces better lawyers. These schools generally are though to include Harvard. Yale, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, NYU, University of California at Berkeley, Virginia and Texas.

"It really shows," said a partner in a New York firm. "We have hired from other schools and they have done well, but most of them just don't have it. I'd rather have a 'C' student from Harvard than an 'A' student from some other school."

Law firms tend to hire schools that produced the hiring firm's partners. "It makes it hard to break in for schools that haven't been around for a long time," said Munneke, of the National Association of Law Placement. "people come back to their own kind," NYU's Magness said.

"What are they looking for? Are they looking for themselves? Or are they looking for what they might have been?" asked Harvard's Appel.

Irish, the hiring partner at Carlin & Drysdale, illustrated the difficulty of choosing new hires. Riffling through a six-inch high stack of applications on his desk, he picked one from "a top guy" at a second-ranked western law school. The applicants grades and two summer jobs with respected law firms indicated be "could be a real winner," and he was invited to submit writing samples and references.

Another applicant was first in his class at "a less than front-ranked" southern law school and articles editor of the Law Review there. He also was listed as a "maybe."

On the other hand, an applicant in the top 15 per cent of his class at Georgetown was rejected immediately. "He'll make a very good lawyer somehere, I'm sure, but I can make a quick cut on him," Irish said.

Another application came from a student who was on the Law Review at Harvard, was interested in tax law and was clerking for a respected federal judge. "There's no question he's someone I want to interview, to spend time with. I just called him to set up an interview," Irish said.

If that applicant comes to Washington, he will see at least five members of the firm and spend five to 15 hours talking to people.

That amount of effort goes into filling just four or five vacancies. Even Covington & Burling, one of Washington's largest law firms, is looking for only 15 new graduates and another 10 lawyers who have served as judicial clerks.

Because of the competition more firms are hiring students between their second and third years in the hope that they may prove good enough to be hired as full'time employees after graduation. In fact, pressure is increasing so much among the best law firms for the same small poll of law students that the firms are beginning to recruit students between their first and second years of law school for summer jobs.

Women and blacks are playing a larger role in the hiring process. About one-third of law school graduates are women, and firms cite no need to give them special preference. "There's a flood of really talented applications from women," said Irish of Caplin & Drysdale.

But not all firms know how to deal with women applicants. According to a Harvard Law Record article last month, one woman law student complained to the placement office that a recruiter belittled her by asking whether in five years she would rather stay home and raise a family than practice law. She said he also referred to "girls" and "lady lawyers" during the interview.

Assistant Dean Alfred C. W. Daniels of Harvard said he discussed the woman's complaint with the law firms. "We understand the kind of issues that concern women and minority students in a way law firms haven't yet come to be sensitized," Daniels said.

Law firms complain that they cannot attract as many talented blacks as they would like, but only a few firms appear to have special recruiting programs aimes at blacks. The Washington firms of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard & McPherson sent a special letter to the Black Law Student Association at Yale and invited members to apply for jobs.

In the past, major Wall Street firms attracted most of the top law school graduates. These firms include Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Sullivan & Cromwell, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood.

Then Washington's law firms began growing and attacting some of the better graduates. Now Chicago firms say they also are hiring top graduates, including four Harvard Law Review members, a Chicago partner said. But a survey by the New York Law Journal indicates that the trend now is turning back to New York firms.

Not all law students want to work for the large, high-paying firms. Harvard's Appel said the placement office is under increasing pressure by students to help them land jobs with public interest law firms.

Still, 69 per cent of last year's Harvard graduates went into corporate law while only 1 per cent joined public interest firms. Moreover, Harvard graduates tend to congregate in a few cities- 115 of last year's graduates went to New York, and washington was next with 68.

Thus the recruiting process determines the pecking order for the legal profession.