At a meeting in the White House office of presidential counselor Edwin Meese III in April 1984, four aides reworked a letter Meese's attorney had written to protest statements a senator had made about Meese to the news media.

As they scribbled, Meese and his lawyers -- Leonard Garment and E. Bob Wallach -- quietly watched. Garment asked Meese whether he could speak to him privately.

When the two returned to the room, Meese made it clear to his aides that Garment's letter did not need any changes. "I think it's fine," he said.

With that stroke, Meese's lawyers established control over the defense of Meese -- not only his legal defense, but his public image as well. But what the lawyers saw as an essential part of their responsibility in handling the Meese case, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia saw differently.

Yesterday the panel refused to allow Meese to be reimbursed under the Ethics in Government Act for such costs, although they are an increasingly common part of a lawyer's defense of a Washington client.

Garment and Wallach estimated that dealing with the news media consumed 10 to 15 percent of defense time. When White House aides leaked stories about Meese to reporters, Garment confronted the suspected aides. When Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) made allegations about Meese to reporters, Garment and Wallach protested in letters to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

When reporters phoned Garment with allegations about Meese, Garment sometimes tried to persuade them that they did not have a story. When reporters made factual errors, Garment was quick to demand retractions. When reporters had questions, Garment was willing to answer them.

And when The Baltimore Evening Sun published an editorial critical of Meese, Garment sent the newspaper a "proposed editorial" apologizing to Meese. The Evening Sun refused to publish it.

After Meese was cleared, Garment and Wallach billed him for their time at rates up to $250 an hour and Meese, under provisions of the Ethics in Government Act, passed both firms' $720,924 bill along to the Justice Department.

Yesterday a U.S. Court of Appeals panel awarded Meese $472,190 -- two thirds of his lawyers' request -- but said he could not be reimbursed for the time his attorneys spent answering questions from reporters.

The panel failed to explain why it had disallowed charges for media dealings.

The itemized particulars filed by Garment and Wallach to justify their fees to the panel, as well as conversations with them and others familiar with the case, provide a rare glimpse into an increasingly common and controversial kind of defense in government and the private sector: a defense aimed at clearing a client not only before the law but before the news media and public.

Some say such tactics are natural and necessary for the lawyers of any public figure in Washington.

"You have to fight in all arenas in this town," said Tom Korologos, a former Reagan White House aide. "It's not unusual; go ask Bert Lance, Hamilton Jordan, Sherman Adams."

Indeed, attorney and former defense secretary Clark M. Clifford, who defended Carter administration official Bert Lance, says he thought of his task as "defending the honor and reputation" of Lance.

"In order to do it properly, a lawyer must do what is necessary to defend his man in the opinion of the public," Clifford said.

"Although the Senate committee makes the decision, the ultimate judge is public opinion," Clifford said.

Ray Jenkins, an editor at The Baltimore Evening Sun, the paper that refused to print Garment's "proposed editorial," said, "I simply object to any amount of reimbursement being paid to attorneys for drafting "proposed editorials" for newspapers which criticize public officials, no matter how small the amount may be."

Jenkins called yesterday's decision on reimbursement for news media contacts "excellent." "No lawyer should be charging for public relations services," he said.