WASHINGTON HARDLY suffers from a shortage of lawyers, but the city government is having trouble keeping enough attorneys around to handle its legal business. The corporation counsel's office, which handles city hall's legal casework, traditionally has had some difficulty recruiting and retaining top talent; but when the city has six vacancies on a staff of only 87 lawyers -- and still other attorneys about to leave -- the delays in the handling of municipal business become serious.

Apparently the troubles are compounding, too: officials in the Department of Human Resources, for example, report that several attorneys who had been working on welfare cases have quit in recent months because of the pile-on of work. Some have resigned before the effective date of a public ethics law restricting the kinds of cases private attorneys can handle if they have just shifted from government practice. A certain amount of turnover is understandable, for top lawyers are attracted out of the corporation counsel's office to what is generally far more lucrative work for federal agencies and private firms.

The ideal solution, of course, would be to eliminate a good 50 percent of all the legal red tape and mundane junkwork that is strangling all governments these days. But that is not going to happen tomorrow, and meanwhile the overall efficiency of the city government is threatened. In addition to accelerating the recruitment of lawyers, Mayor Barry and D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith Rogers should continue to press for congressional approval of a proposal under which the District would assume full control over its local criminal justice system by 1981.

This transfer in itself would work no miracles, but the selection of two first-rate lawyers to serve as local attorney general and associate attorney general could have a significant impact on the entire legal staff, from criminal prosecutors to those who handle the routine civil matters.