In the conference room of a large Washington law firm, one would expect the decor to be in harmony with the decorum.Are the carpets soft and thick? So might be the courtesies that opposing lawyers extend to each other.

Ordinarily, things probably are that way at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.But they weren't that way at all during three days in September, when the firm's conference room became the site -- or battlefield -- for a startling confrontation between two attorneys who, possibly to the relief of WC&P, aren't members of the firm.

One is Morris B. Abram, a former president of Brandeis University who is a partner in Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a New York-based law firm. It and, in pending litigation, WC&P both represent Colonial Penn Group and Leonard Davis, its principal stockholder.

The second lawyer is Philip J. Hirshkop of Alexandria, a burr under many establishment saddles. His client is Harriet E. Miller, former executive director of the American Association of Retired Person,s She is suing CPG and Davis, mainly, alleging defamation. In turn, she is being sued by AARP, which alleges she violated a settlement reached when she and the association parted company.

In an early skirmish, Abram asked Hirskop about a note Hirshkop had shown to Miller.

"It is none of your damned business what I showed her," said Hirshkop. "i think it is unethical for you to ask."

Shortly, they got into a hassle about the tone of voice in which each was speaking to the other.

"I am speaking in a quiet tone," said Hirshkop.

"You are not," said Abram.

"You are a liar," said Hirshkop.

"I am not," said Abram.

Was this a momentary loss of temper? Something to be regretted and not repeated?

Abram: "I don't want your tone of voice used at me. It is extremely uncivil."

Hirshkop: "That's a lie on the record and I resent it."

A: "I am tired of being called liar...."

H: "You're falsifying this record." Later:

A: "You're calling me a liar."

H: "Maybe we should get a tape recorder to show the true tone of voice. You didn't tell the truth about the tone of voice..."

A: "Am I shouting?"

H: "No, but you have in the past. You are adking questions behind the client -- "

A: "I have nver asked a question behind the client -- "

H: "The rocord will show. You went to get doughnuts or something. You put your feet up on the table on occasion; on occasion right in her face. Let's take a reasonable deposition."

A: "I don't call people a liar, but... everyone here will testify -- everyone except you -- will testify that what you are saying did not occur."

H: "Let's get on with the questions."

A: "I am a very quiet-spoken person who has been at the bar long enough to know that your conduct is the most extreme and extraordinary, and as far as I'm concerned has never been observed by me in any court."

H: "You practice the most unethical deposition I've ever seen. You have interrupted her on every question. You say the is hesitating just to purposely mislead the record. You've done things that are so horribly unethical I don't believe your firm will allow it..."

Later, Hirshkop plugged in a tape recorder to have an oral record mainly of tone of voice and hesitations. Abram was agreeable.

The court reporter wasn't. "Because of the overlapping and not allowing the witness to finish her anweres and generally disorderly proceedings, I will not have a tape recording," he announced. After more tumult and a telephone call to his employer, hewever, he relented.

This account wouldn't be true to the transcript or the recording were it to imply that the forgoing episodes were the whole of it.

There was, for example, the moment when Abram asked witness Miller about a letter of congratulations written when she was named to her AARP post.

"That's from my mother," Miller told Abram.

Hirshkip: "Why are we letting her mother's correspondence in this record? You guys got nothing better to do? Does it add to the billing?"

Abram: " -- bears on relationship... mischaracterized in the complaint."