Unless you practice law in this town you might be surprised to learn how much corporations pay attorneys here and what kinds of services that money buys. Fees in excess of $200 an hour are not uncommon, and lawyers routinely bill clients not only for preparing documents and appearing in court, but for taking a Hill staffer to lunch, testifying before a congressional committee, discussing an international trade problem with an ambassador and even dealing with the media. Lawyers are expensive agents for much of this work, but if a wealthy individual or a corporation wants to spend money this way, it's a private matter.

When the government is paying legal bills, though, it's a different situation. In these cases government officials have a duty to keep costs down and to reimburse only for necessary legal work. And the taxpayers pick up a lot of legal bills these days. The large majority of criminal defendants are represented by publicly paid attorneys. Successful plaintiffs in a wide range of civil rights cases win attorney's fees, as do successful defendants in certain small-business cases brought by the government. Public officials who are the subject of an investigation by an independent counsel -- formerly known as a special prosecutor -- are also entitled to have reasonable legal fees paid if that investigation does not result in an indictment. This brings us to the case of Attorney General Edwin Meese and his lawyers.

Representing Mr. Meese during the investigation that preceded his Senate confirmation was a difficult and time-consuming task for which he chose skilled and high-priced counsel. At the investigation's conclusion, Mr. Meese's lawyers submitted a bill for every hour they spent on the case, asking their customary hourly fees. This was perfectly proper under the law as it is now written. But just as courts scrutinize bills submitted by criminal counsel and civil rights lawyers and routinely disallow some time and reduce some hourly rates, they have done so in the Meese case. His lawyers will be paid only about two-thirds of the amount requested, and no reimbursement will be made for time spent dealing with the media. It is a fair solution.

While public attention is focused on this issue, however, two more steps should be taken. Congress should enact legislation setting a cap on hourly fee reimbursements in all cases where the government pays private attorneys. The Justice Department has repeatedly requested this change, suggesting a limit of $75 an hour. Second, Congress should pass a private bill to reimburse Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's chief of staff, for legal fees he incurred during an independent prosecutor's investigation in 1979 and '80. The Jordan case was concluded, witout indictment, before the law was changed to provide for attorney's fees. It is only just, while paying Mr. Meese's lawyers, to treat Mr. Jordan in the same manner.