The Justice Department, taking a new tack in the Reagan administration's attempt to end use of numerical goals in hiring and promotion, has formally asked 47 cities and states to consider modifications in certain court orders and consent decrees filed as a result of lawsuits against them by the department under previous administrations.

Changes are being sought in orders and consent decrees giving preferential treatment in hiring or promotion to groups of women and minorities, according to copies of two letters sent by the department.

The department asked the jurisdictions to consider deleting provisions in the orders and decrees that establish interim goals, or percentages, for the number of females and/or minorities who will be hired.

Instead, it requested language saying the decree allows employers to give preference only to victims of discrimination named in a decree, rather than to groups of minorities or women who may not have suffered directly in a particular job situation. Federal judges would have to approve the changes.

Quotas or goals in the original decrees and orders were requested by the Justice Department during previous administrations. In addition, the lawsuits resulting in the orders and decrees were brought against the cities and states by previous department officials alleging discriminatory practices.

The department has fought use of quotas by not including any in consent decrees signed since August 1981. It also has filed briefs supporting white male firefighters in a reverse-discrimination case before the Supreme Court last year and supporting appeals of federal cases by white males claiming reverse discrimination.

Department lawyers refused to name jurisdictions to which letters were sent. A New York State official said it will not agree to the request, prompted by the Supreme Court's June decision in a Memphis case, Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts.

The court found that black firefighters hired there as a result of affirmative-action policies should not be spared during layoffs when white firefighters with more seniority were being laid off.

"We discussed that letter with our clients, the state police, and we feel that there is no need to reopen this case," said Timothy Gillis, press secretary to New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams. "The court order that they have been complying with has worked well . . . and is accomplishing the goal of increasing minority representation of the state police."

The Justice Department has received some replies to its letters, and "some are willing to discuss modifications and some are not," the spokesman said.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Charles Cooper said the courts will be asked to modify orders and decrees even of jurisdictions that do not want changes.

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, who signed the letter, has said the attempt to modify orders and decrees is not intended to "displace" workers who have benefited from such decrees, but to stop future use of quotas.

Barry Goldstein, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the attempt to reopen such cases "a gross misallocation of resources."

"I think it's about as counterproductive as any action could be for the federal government to attempt to reopen and relitigate 47 cases that often had been litigated for more than 10 years in order to assert some extreme position on appropriate civil rights remedies," Goldstein said.