"You come in here with a head full of mush," Professor Kingsfield tells his first-year law students at the beginning of every "Paper Chase" television episode. "And -- if you survive -- you go out of here thinking like a lawyer." But the trouble with thinking like a lawyer is that it usually means writing like a lawyer, and most lawyers don't write very well. The problem with lawyers' writing is not so much an overabundance of "therefores" and "whereases" -- "therefore" is a perfectly good word, and one essential to the lawyer's trade -- but a reluctance to express ideas simply and concisely.

Lawyers' thinking tends to take into account all the variables, no matter how remote, that might result from a given situation, no matter how simple. Thus most lawyers are unable to express a simple idea without getting around to all the conditions, qualifications and contingencies that attend it. This produces an unfortunate tendency not to use one word if six will do, or one sentence when a paragraph is available. As a general rule, the clarity of an argument is in direct proportion to the number of periods on the page, but most of us take refuge in commas and semicolons (and parentheses).

Lawyers thus much prefer to write for other lawyers, who are accustomed to this verbiage. The prospect of writing for laymen is intimidating because, to do it well, one must stop thinking like a lawyer.

Therefore, a practicing lawyer who Associates," which does to New York can write for laymen is something of a mutant, and John Jay Osborn Jr., who created Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase," has proved that he can do it. Now he has written "The Associates," which does to New York law firms what "The Paper Chase" did for law schools. It gives the outside world a glimpse of the boiler rooms of the law business from the perspective of three young lawyers who are paid to shovel coal on the fires. Samuel Weston, the narrator, is one associate, fresh out of Harvard Law School and ensconced in the Wall Street firm of Bass and Marshall. His main effort is pursuing Camilla Newman, the brainy and beautiful second associate, with the help of the zonkedout Littlefield, who writes legal memoranda quoting Cicero and St. Augustine rather than the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Unfortunately, just because Osborn can write free of legal hobbles does not mean that he always writes well. He can be quite good when writing about people dealing with the law and its institutions; he is markedly less successful (and, one infers, less interested) when writing about people dealing with other people. Cosmo Bass' ruminations on the beginnings of his law firm half a century earlier are genuinely affecting; Samuel Weston's pursuit of Camilla Newman reads as if Osborn dictated it into a pocket recorder on the red-eye special from L.A. to New York.

And Osborn persists in drawing his dialogue for young lawyers from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They don't say "okay"; they say, "Your motion is granted." For a snappy put-down, "Your holding is too broad." Perhaps first-year law students, trying out a new language, talk this way but, like baby talk, it does not bear repeating in civilized conversation and is not to be encouraged when the speaker is old enough to know better.

The publisher's claim that this is "a letter-perfect portrayal of the tensions and excitements of big-time law today" is wrong, or at least it had better be wrong; big-time law is in big-time trouble if it is practiced by the likes of the paranoid partners (Cosmo Bass excepted) of Bass and Marshall.

Lawyers will find "The Associates" of passing interest. For example, what ex-associate cannot say, with Little-field, "Once in a while I find myself late at night looking over what I've done, and I think, Who the hell ever wrote a memorandum as perfect as this?I did this thing! And there is not a case left uncited or a single misplaced comma."

As a novel, however, it does not really stand on its own, and I doubt the public's appetite for the inside scoop on the practice of law is ravenous enough for it to wade through the tedium of Weston's Newman chase without a motion for relief.