THERE WAS A GOOD deal of surprise, and no doubt some anguish, around the state of Virginia last week when its Supreme Court ruled that an unmarried woman cannot be barred from becoming a lawyer solely because she is living with a man. The decision has an un-Virginian ring to it because that state seems to be trying harder than most to hang on to its old mores. But the judgment reached unanimously by the seven justices was inevitable both as a matter of law and as a recognition of reality.

The law is laid out in several decisions of the United States Supreme Court. These hold that the qualifications a state may require of those who want to become lawyers must have some "rational connection" with the applicant's ability or fitness to practice law. An individual's living arrangements don't have any connection at all, let alone a rational one, with the ability to analyze problems, write briefs and argue cases.

The reality which undoubtedly influenced the Virginia Supreme Court is the clear necessity of applying the same rules of personal conduct to those who are already lawyers as are applied to those who want to be lawyers. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur if Virginia began ousting from the bar all of the lawyers whose living arrangements do not fit the ethic applied by the lower court in this case?

The lower court judge wrote, "A lawyer should be above reproach, above gossip." He agreed with the local bar association president that having an unmarried female lawyer around who lives with a man "would lower the public's opinion of the bar as a whole."

Frankly, we know few lawyers who are regarded as above reproach and none who is above gossip. Reproaching lawyers and gossiping about them has been a major pastime in most communities at least since there were lawyers. So it seems the Virginia Supreme Court has saved the careers of a good many lawyers. If the above-reproach above-gossip standard were applied across the board, the state would have few lawyers left. Of course, there are people around who say that wouldn't be such a bad thing.