Clutching forms and staring blankly, they wait in rows of pastel plastic chairs for their names to be called. They've come about the welfare check or the child support payment that didn't arrive or the repossession or eviction notice that did.

They have come to the fourth largest law firm in Maryland, the Legal Aid Bureau, which has 80 lawyers and 50 paralegals in offices around the state. Its main office is on the edge of the city's courthouse district but its similarity with the other big firms in town begins and ends with that fact.

The other big firms have senior members who sit on the boards of banks and private colleges. The senior members here sit on the boards of welfare agencies and advocacy organizations. The lawyers there lobby in Annapolis for higher interest rates. The lawyers here lobby for higher welfare rates.

But the biggest difference now is that the Legal Aid Bureau is federally funded and marked for extinction by the Reagan administration along with 330 programs around the country supported by the Legal Services Corp. Almost all of the Maryland bureau's $5.6 million annual budget comes from federal funds, most from the corporation.

It may not yet be obituary time for these programs, because there is a struggle ahead over their elimination. The American Bar Association last week summoned state bar officials from all over the country to rally around legal services and House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) moved to refund the corporation's $321 million budget Thursday. "Too many people are dependent on this program to let it die," he said.

But if an obituary had to be written, it would be lengthy.

Born during the War on Poverty and the Great Society, legal assistance lived for 15 years and represented, literally, millions of people each year.

Law professors say the program helped revolutionize the law and the teaching of law in America. Fifteen years ago, for example, landlord-tenant law was built around the right of property. He who owned the property was right. Now, landlord-tenant law is built around contracts. If one party doesn't perform, the other party doesn't have to perform.

Law schools 20 years ago taught students how to write legal memoranda and do research. The coming of legal aid brought clinical teaching programs at almost every law school. The clinics teach students how to practice.

It was no mystery why conservatives, and a conservative president who as governor did battle with legal services, would want to do away with the program. Legal services was not just a program. It was a national movement, with its conventions, training programs and law reviews and 6,000 missionary lawyers around the country.

The causes were, indeed, poor people. But the causes were closely identified with liberals -- welfare, abortion, civil rights, rent control and the like. Many of the lawyers were zealous and sometimes they went beyond legal representation and lobbied and organized people, which particularly enraged conservatives.

And it was all coordinated at the top by the federally funded Legal Services Corp.

It was "a church," said Howard Phillips, Conservative Caucus chairman and legal services archenemy, "a federally established church of legal services."

Until this month, Julia Boswell received $218 a month in Aide to Families with Dependent Children and $116 worth of food stamps. She has two children at home and two more in college on scholarships. In 1976, an auto accident crushed one of her legs and she hasn't held a job since.

A few months ago, her welfare was almost cut off because she was not registered with the job training program for welfare recipients -- the "Work Incentive Program." In fact, that program had transferred her to the Vocational Rehabilitation Program because of her disability. Legal services straightened that out with a few phone calls to the Department of Social Services.

On this day, she has returned to Ellen Pinter, a legal assistant at the Baltimore Legal Aid Bureau, with another problem: the department had failed to send her checks for the past month because they say she hasn't filled out a form promising not to commit fraud on the program. Her water is about to be cut off and she has received an eviction notice.

"They're not supposed to terminate a recipient at the same time they send her the forms she hasn't filled out," Pinter says. "They're supposed to give her a chance to fill out the forms. This is plain harassment.

"What I'm going to do," Pinter tells Boswell, "is call Miss Stevens at the department and clear this up." She dials the number, which she knows by heart from hundreds of similar calls. "Hello, is Miss . . . ." She is put on hold for five minutes before the department takes the call again.

"Is Miss Stevens there? I have a client here in my office now. . . . Oh. She's out to lunch now? Won't be back 'til 2 p.m.?"

Twenty-four hours later, Pinter has reached department officials and has been told they will look into Boswell's case.

Four blocks away, Rick Pecora, head of the bureau's domestic unit, is making rounds of the courthouses checking on cases involving a different sort of client: abused children. Each day, social services officials remove children from homes after discovering burns on children's arms and legs or bruises on their heads.

A child can be removed at once and placed temporarily under state protection. But within 24 hours, a judge must review the action. Legal aid lawyers are often appointed to represent interests of the child in such a proceeding.

On this day, legal aid attorney Sara Meyerhoff is in court for a hearing on whether a 6-month-old child should be continued in foster care. The child, one of six in a family, was removed after the mother left a loaded gun in an unlocked closet, and a 6-year-old brother shot a sister and himself. The mother was commited to a mental hospital after the incident.

Legal aid lawyers will continue to represent the child, sometimes for years. Pecora has just finished reviewing the status of a child, who was removed from a home in 1975 after being burned on the arms, thighs and back with a hot comb as a disciplinary measure.

After removal, the child was found to be retarded and was placed, with the help of legal aid, in a hospital for the retarded.

In another room at the bureau, paralegal Odella Edwards is preparing for a hearing before a Social Security examiner with a man whose disability payments were terminated because officials thought he was able to find a job.

The man was disabled by police, who shot him at least a dozen times after, as he put it, he "went cracy," stabbed his wife and someone in a store.He has just been released after five years in a mental hospital for the criminally insane.

He is out of work and has three children. "I'm going to ask you the questions the man is going to ask tomorrow at the hearing," Edwards says to the man and "I want you to answer accurately.

"What was the last job you held before your disability?" she says.

"I was a groundskeeper for the City Department of Parks," the man says.

"What did your duties consist of?"

"Consist of?," the man says, looking confused.

"What did you do?" she clarifies. . . ."

There was a time, a generation ago, when lawsuits were relatively simple matters. One party would sue another and a judge could give relief: a payment would be made. Damages for past injuries would be awarded. Someone would be ordered to stop doing whatever it was prompted the complaint.

In the '60s, a radical change occurred. One party still sued another. But the first party might be representing thousands of other people who had the same problem. Judges, instead of simply resolving a dispute and punishing the wrongdoer, began ordering things be done to make sure the problem didn't occur again. Sweeping remedial orders were issued to be carried out under supervision of the court.

Legal services was born amid this change and the use of this tool -- the class action suit -- by legal aid practitioners has been one of the most controversial aspects of the program.

Elloyd Lotridge, deputy director of Maryland Legal Aid, says the bureau sees about 20,000 clients like this each year and refers another 40,000 to other agencies.

When enough people with the same problem show up the lawyers start thinking about doing something more than making a phone call. They may seek legislative change (lobbying has also been the source of vast controversy, because they are federally funded), or they may try to negotiate a change with state bureaucrats.

The threat of a massive suit is what gives them clout. "We have the ability to sue and they know we'll do it," says Dennis Carroll, head of the Maryland program's administrative law unit.

They did it recently on behalf of Maryland penitentiary immates who they alleged were being overcrowded in cells. A federal judge in Baltimore declared the overcrowding unconstitutional and ordered the state to make more space. It means new prisons will have to be built.

Legal aid lawyers from Baltimore have been to the U.S. Supreme Court at least four times in recent years, on behalf of illegitimate children, unemployed workers denied welfare benefits and Social Security recipients who couldn't get cases reopened for hearings by the government.

The lawyers call these suits "impact" cases. Some examples show why. Legal services lawyers initiated actions that ultimately required Maine to turn over thousands of acres of lands to Indians, from whom it was taken.

One issue of the Clearinghouse Review, the law journal published for the legal services industry, listed among hundreds of ongoing cases:

A challenge to the standards by which agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service detain and interrogate persons of Mexican descent.

An action before the Kentucky Energy Regulatory Commission challenging the rate schedules that give utility discounts to large industrial users.

A suit on behalf of farm workers challenging pesticide spraying techniques among Florida growers.

A suit challenging conditions at a hospital for the criminally insane.

Settlement of an action against the Defense Department forcing it to review millions of less-than-honorable discharges from the military.

"They are in every significant liberal legal battle," said Howard Phillips. "They develop strategies for changes in public policy. In virtually every debate of the past 15 years, they've been carrying the cudgels of liberals."

The problem, Phillips and other conservatives argue, is that all of this is financed by taxpayers. While the Reagan administration says states can fund legal service programs from now on, Phillips believes it should be financed "in the same way other charitable services are financed. If a private attorney is willing to represent someone, he should be able to take a charitable deduction on his income taxes."