The U.S. attorney's office here has "reluctantly changed" its policy of refusing to pay lawyers more than $75 an hour in settling claims for their work in civil cases against the government, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova announced yesterday.

More than 100 federal laws permit private parties in lawsuits to recover legal fees from the government if they succeed in their cases. DiGenova said the U.S. attorney's office was forced to abandon its $75 hourly limit for attorneys' fees in settling such cases because of recent decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals here requiring that lawyers be compensated at the rates which they are paid by their paying clients for similar cases.

Royce C. Lamberth, chief of the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office, said the office had paid $1,653,527 in the fees of opposing lawyers from January to July of this year. Removing the $75 cap, he estimated, would have cost the government another $1,070,908.

Lamberth said that "the logic" of recent court opinions, which have permitted hourly fees of up to $175, is that "anyone can hire Edward Bennett Williams and the taxpayer should have to pay."

In permitting attorneys' fees to be awarded to prevailing parties, he said, "Congress intended that you be able to hire competent counsel -- not the most expensive corporate lawyer in town." An hourly rate of $75, he said, is "certainly sufficient to attract competent counsel."

But public interest lawyers applauded the move to lift the $75 cap, arguing that higher fees could be justified in some cases by the risk and difficulty of the litigation and as a way of encouraging lawyers to bring cases for clients who might not be able to afford to pay them.

"In these days of lack of government enforcement, if private citizens don't take these cases they simply will not be brought," said Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice. "We're talking about the encouragement of the private bar to take these cases, and we've always thought, and the courts have always thought, that market rates are what is appropriate."

Lifting the cap is "a positive sign," said Alan Morrison, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. "Hopefully, it means they the U.S. attorney's office will spend a lot less time" going to court to fight over legal fees. When the government and the private lawyer can't reach agreement on compensation, the amount is decided by a judge.

If the government has its way, however, the $75 limit will be back in place before long. In announcing the move yesterday, DiGenova said it underscored the need for Congress to enact a pending bill, the Legal Fees Equity Act, that would set a $75 an hour maximum for lawyers in suits against the government.

In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen said that forcing the government to pay fees as high as private firms charge their corporate clients was "like compensating all doctors for routine medical procedures on the basis of rates charged by Dr. Denton Cooley," the famous heart surgeon.