THE RETIREMENT of the respected Judge Margaret Haywood of the D.C. Superior Court provides an opportunity to reflect on the progress women have made in the legal profession and, in particular, on the bench in recent years. Until the late '60s, the number of women in the profession was a steady 2 to 5 percent. The pool from which judges were drawn was overwhelmingly male and so, of course, were the judges. Women, such as Judge Haywood, who had been practicing law since the '40s, were few and far between. That has now changed dramatically. Women comprise more than a third of all law students and 13 percent of those attorneys actively engaged in practice. By the end of the century, more than a third of all attorneys with the experience and training necessary to become judges will be women. Many are already fully qualified.

The appointment of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court a little more than a year ago is not only a personal triumph for a lawyer who happens to be a woman, but a symbol of the ability of female lawyers to handle any responsibility. She is not alone on the bench, for there are 11 women among the 133 federal appeals court judges and 35 women in the total of 508 federal District Court judges. Most of them were appointed by President Carter, though President Reagan has appointed three women to the District Court bench. Another 700 women now serve as state court judges. Here in the District, the Judicial Nomination Commission has sent six names to the president from which he will choose two to fill vacancies on the Superior Court bench; three of the six are women, not tokens or recent law school graduates, but experienced, respected advocates whose credentials are, in every way, equal to those of the male nominees.

In a recent speech to the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Wald pointed out that women judges can make a special contribution to the law because they bring to their work a different set of experiences from their male colleagues. But in suggesting that more women be appointed to the bench, Judge Wald stressed the need to discriminate. Gender alone is not a sufficient credential, she warned, and women must "have the guts to give as honest an appraisal of a woman who is not up to par as we do of a man." The good news is that there are already plenty of women lawyers who can meet that standard, and, year by year, their numbers are increasing