Former civil rights lawyer Wiley A. Branton, who first gained national prominence representing blacks who attempted to integrate public schools in Little Rock, Ark., will become dean of the troubled Howard University Law School on Jan. 1.

Branton will be trying to rescue the 108-year-old law school that graduated more than half the nation's black lawyers - including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington and Cheif Judge William B. Bryant of the U.S. District Court here - and served as the legal think tank for the civil rights movement during the 1940s and 1950s.

The law school's reputation has declined sharply in recent years, however, and top black law students have one elsewhere. The school's accreditation is now in jeopardy, its graduates have consistently performed poorly on the bar exam, and its faculty and administration have fallen to arguing over what needs to be done to restore the law school's effectiveness.

Branton, who ran both the federal Council on Equal Opportunity and Washington's local antipoverty agency before going into private law practice, will be the eighth dean of the Howard law school since 1960. But he said yesterday that he is ready for the challenge.

"At this point in my life, I felt I could be of some help to young people seeking legal careers." Branton, 54, said, "This is a job that needs to be done and I would like to do it."

As a condition for accepting the job, Branton said he asked for and received a commitment from the Howard administration to increase financial aid for students (half of whom must now work their way through school), to increase funds for the Law Review and to consider providing housing for married students.

Two months ago, Branton was one of five persons nominated for appointment to a federal judgeship, which ultimately went to Louis F. Oberdorter. However Branton said he was a front-runner for appointment to two other vacancies on the federal bench.

"By accepting the job at Howard I have lost my chance to be a federal judge," Branton said yesterday, "But after considering all sides of the issue, I decide I could make a greater contribution to the legal profession as dean of the law school than as a judge."

The Howard University Law School was created by Congress in 1869 to provide a law school for blacks who were barred from white schools by legal segregation.

Over the years, the circumstances that gave birth to a black law school have changed. At first, blacks who wanted to study law routinely went to Howard. As a result, classes often were composed of highly qualified students from high-income homes.

When schools were desegregated in the 1950s and 1960s the pool of talent from which Howard and traditionally drawn its students changed drastically.

Students who once would have gone to Howard increasingly began to enroll at such schools as Harvard, Yale and Georgetown where scholarship were plentiful and faculty and facilities more impressive.

Today, the Howard law school is composed largely of students who in many cases were not able to attend another law school for academic or financial reasons. Most Students Work

More than half the students at Howard work part time to pay their tuition and living expenses. The average student at Howard owes between $8,000 and $10,000 for education loans by the time he graduates.

"We do admit a lot of students - black and white - who may not have been able to get into another law school," said Charles T. Duncan, who resigned his deanship in August, but is still a professor at Howard law. "We have always had a mission to provide an opportunity for blacks to get a legal education."

"I'm not disturbed [WORD ILLEGIBLE] some of our people, perhaps at the bottom of the class, do not have a competitive bar passage rate," Duncan said. "What does disturb me is when our top graduates are discriminated against simply because they graduated from Howard."

While most other law shcools have standard criteria for admissions. Howard does not. Only since Duncan became dean of the school in 1974 have applicants benn required to take the Law School Aptitude Test, which is used extensively at many other schools to weed out applicants.

"We've found that there's no perfect test to determine quality," said Henry Jones, a law professor and chairman of the Howard admissions committee.

"We do not base our admissions on one or two factors," he added. "The committee does not only look at academics, but we look at industry, integrity, diligence and the potential of students here," Jones said.

"Our students are not necessarily the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers or the elite group, but we are certain that we have high-quality students here," Jones said.

Herbert O. Reid, 61, came to Howard as a law professor 31 years ago and today is the "Charles Hamilton Houston distinguished professor of law," the highest-ranking professorship at Howard. Houston was a brilliant civil rights lawyer who was dean of the law school in the 1930s.

Reid talks often about the "Houston tradition" and how the school in general is straying away from the high standards it was known for.

"When I was coming along, most young people thought that to be (teaching) at the Howard law school was the apex of a black man's legal career and could be topped only by an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court," Reid said recently. 'Golden Age' Recalled

Reid said the so-called 'golden age' of the Howard law school was a relatively brief period in the 1940s and early 1950s when Marshall, Houston, Bryant, the late William Hastie researched and collaborated on civil rights cases in the halls and classrooms of Howard.

In the Houston tradition, lawyers in private practice worked with law professors and students to research and write briefs for major civil rights cases.

Many times, the cases were rehearsed in Howard law school classrooms several times before they reached the courtroom floor. Students were able to study the law, then put their knowledge to work immediately in a real court suit.

Reid said he tried to rekindle the Houston ideal earlier this year when he included students in the preparation of a friend-of-the-court brief he tiled in U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Howard law school in the Bakke reverse discrimination case.

But Reid believes the standards of Houston have not been lost among many new members of the faculty. He points out that 20 of the 38 faculty members - many of whom graduated from Ivy League schools - were hired during the three years Duncan was dean.

"I feel threatened by a thinking and mentality that people come to Howard and feel they should be given something special because they graduated from Harvard," said Reid, who is himself a graduate of the Harvard law school.

"A lot of these younger teachers fail to realize they should be helping the tradition," Reid said.

After schools were desegregated, Reid said, Howard lost sight of its mission. "Howard thouhgt it had a new mission to be another Harvard or Yale," said Reid. "We almost forgot about our role as a watchdog over social policy to point out inequitiees." 'Mission' Described

Reid believes the Howard law school still has a twofold mission: to train and develop a cadre of legal engineers to bring about equality for blacks through the legal process and to provide an opportunity for disadvantaged blacks to study law.

"But when you're talking about education for disadvantaged people, you're essentially talking about compensatory education and financial aid," Reid said.

Last year Phyllis Pratt, the daughter of a low-income Louisiana couple, received $1,200 in financial aid to help pay her tuition during her first year at the Howard law school.

This year Pratt, 27, expected her financial aid to be renewed. But she was told at the beginning of the school year that "funds were insufficient" and she may not get any financial assistance this year.

To pay her living expenses and her academic bills. Pratt works part-time as a research assistant at a local law firm. But while she earns enough to keep herself in school, her working has a negative effect on he academic performance.

When first-year law students at other schools were grappliing with their first law courses, Pratt, in addition to the academics, was puzzling over her new part-time job as a research assistant at a local law firm.

She earned a C grade average during her first year and, like many of her classmates who also work. Pratt said she became caught up "in a kind of paranoia" about whether she would pass the bar examination at the end of law school.

Between 1970 and 1975, graduates of the Howard University Law School who took bar examinations in 40 state scompiled a national average passage rate of about 61 per cent, according to the school's own study of bar results.

In the Washington area, only 25 per cent of the Howard graduates taking the bar passed, the study shows. The passage rate in District of Columbia was 45 per cent; 23 per cent passed in Maryland; and in Virginia, only 18 per cent passed the bar. Congressional Query

At Congressional hearings on the Howard University budget in recent years, legislators have asked Howard University President James E. Cheek to explain why Howard law graduates perform so poorly on bar examinations.

Although Cheek maintained that part of the problem is "related to quality," he said it is difficult to know exactly what is responsible for the relatively low number of Howard graduates who pass the bar.

But Howard graduates are not the only law graduates having troubles with bar examinations, according to Victor Goode, associate director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers in New York.

"It is true that black law graduates in general don't seem to be fairing on bar exams as their white counterparts," said Goode. He said no one so far has been able to clearly identify why black graduates of law schools as disparate as Harvard, Howard and Texas Southern seem to have problems passing the bar.

At HowardM which has traditionally produced more black lawyers than any other school in the world, there are numerous theories of why graduates of the historic institution have scored poorly on many bar examinations across the country.

According to one professor, Howard students do not score well because Howard is a "national" law school, concerned primarily with national policies and laws when state bar examinations very often dwell heavily on local, jurisdictional law.

Many blacks who have taken and failed various bar examiniations nationwide have filed suits claiming that the exams are discriminatory and weighted against blacks.

In a recent discrimination suit filed against the D.C. Committee on Admissions in the D.C. Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel ruled that they found no evidence of discrimination in the D.C. bar exam.

Branton said he believes bar examinations are generally weighted against black law graduates.

"Few questions on the bar examination have any thing to do with a person's fitness to practice law," he said. "Questions very often call for one to draw on a certain kind of cultural background which many blacks do not have."

Branton said that one way to improve the school's bar passage rate would be to set higher standards of admission. "But with higher standards of admission, we may just exclude many of the people Howard is here to serve - people who have potential, but would have trouble getting into other law schools," he said.

Branton, a native of Pine Bluff, Ark., and the third black to attend the University of Arkansas Law school, made national headlines in 1957 as the chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the fight for school desegregation in Little Rock.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s he held other legal posts in the civil rights movement. Branton was hired in 1965 by then Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as executive director of the President's Council on Equal Opportunity.

In 1967 Branton became executive director of the United Planning Organization, the District's antipoverty agency, a position in which he frequently found himself attacked and criticized by local community leaders.

Branton left public life in 1969 and joined the prestigeous black law firm of Dolphin. Branton, Stafford and Webber, which later was dissolved and Branton continued in private practice.