In 1954, when Robert J. McCandlish Jr. took his first major government legal job, he spent an hour a week on the work and earned about $1,000 in the first year.

Last year, Fairfax County paid McCandlish's law firm $294,083 in fees -- more than the county awarded any other firm and about 20 percent of the entire amount it spent for private attorneys. In the past five years, the firm has received more than $2.2 million from Fairfax County agencies.

In three decades, the firm of McCandlish, Lillard, Rust and Church virtually grew up with Northern Virginia government, amassing a huge clientele by representing the school board, the water authority, the hospital association, the housing authority and dozens of other agencies throughout the area.

The firm's ties with local governments reach so far back that McCandlish, 75, and his associates have outlasted most of the county officials who originally appointed them to their positions. The firm's lock on lucrative government contracts has endured.

"A lot of those relationships were established in the '50s," said Randolph W. Church Jr., who joined the firm 14 years ago and now serves as chief counsel to the Fairfax County Water Authority, a position that brought the firm $177,700 last year.

Fairfax was a far different place in 1954, when McCandlish took over the reins of the firm from his uncle and decided to take on some of his county government jobs "for sentimental reasons." A rural county on the threshold of explosive growth found itself increasingly enmeshed in land battles and sewer wars with only a small and inexperienced legal staff to guide it. County Executive Carlton Massey asked McCandlish and the handful of other attorneys in the area for help.

"When the growth of Fairfax took off in the '50s and '60s, there weren't that many lawyers in Fairfax County," said Church. "We were all very favorably placed to take advantage of the expansion. . . . In the 1960s every lawyer in Fairfax was associated with some government client.

"Then we started getting all the lawyers in the late '60s and early '70s," said Church. "Obviously they were not in a position to handle government business. It took them a while to mature."

And when they did, it was too late.

"We were already established," said Church. "It was hard for them to break in."

Serving government was not without its perils, according to McCandlish. But along with their courtly Southern manners, members of the firm brought a sophistication to their tasks that came with years of intimate involvement in state and local government. McCandlish, for example, served three terms in the Virginia General Assembly. John Rust Jr., an associate, also was elected to the House of Delegates.

Largely as a result of its success, McCandlish, Lillard found itself at a crossroads earlier this year. Unwilling to expand to meet the increasingly specialized needs of its growing corporate clientele, the firm's 23 lawyers decided to split up.

Church and several associates joined Hunton and Williams, a prestigious Richmond firm that has been heavily involved in representing the state government. McCandlish and others joined a newly established Northern Virginia branch office of Miles and Stockbridge, the Baltimore-based legal powerhouse.

But as far as who will be handling Fairfax County legal work, only the letterheads have changed. The lawyers handling government business took their clients to their new firms, and there is no indication that the county will be looking to replace them in the future.

"If someone is doing a good job, we'd rather keep them and build on their experience," said Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore. "We would not want to be changing attorneys from year to year."