Texas bankruptcy lawyers, worried that the boom times for them are over as the economy of the Lone Star state rebounds, have set their sights on the next bankruptcy hot spot: Washington, D.C.

The legal profession in Washington is in a frenzy over bankruptcies. Some of the largest law firms in the area didn't even have a bankruptcy expert a year ago. Now they have entire departments, often stealing the few available from the firm up the street. Legal headhunters are beside themselves looking for experienced bankruptcy partners and associates.

"It is clear that bankruptcy is the in specialty of the year," said Stephen E. Leach, head of the bankruptcy department at the Washington firm Tucker, Flyer, Sanger & Lewis. "It appears that virtually every significant firm that doesn't have a bankruptcy lawyer on its staff wants one."

Bankruptcies in all three Washington jurisdictions are up substantially over the last five years. Corporate and personal bankruptcies since 1985 are up 133 percent in Maryland, 129 percent in Eastern Virginia and 48 percent in the District, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

"It reflects what's happening in the economy here," said Charles W. Garrison of Garrison & Associates, a District legal search firm. "A lot of lawyers are shifting gears into bankruptcy because real estate and financial institutions work has faded. Bankruptcy lawyers with established practices are in demand and their business is booming."

And, say bankruptcy attorneys, for every official filing they make under the federal bankruptcy code, there are twice as many cases they are handling as "workouts" -- restructurings that are being done privately, out of bankruptcy court.

Many area lawyers schooled in bankruptcy and workout law are deeply involved in restructuring troubled local real estate businesses, which can include such tasks as helping find tenants for an office building or shopping center, deciding which pieces of land to sell and renegotiating complicated bank loans.

"The real estate markets here really are in chaos," said Leach, who is handling the Garfinckel's department stores bankruptcy case as well as a number of workouts.

"I have never personally been busier and never kept more people in the law firm busier," said Roger Frankel, a bankruptcy attorney with Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn. Frankel is representing a number of local real estate clients involved in workouts, including Conrad Cafritz, Dominic F. Antonelli Jr. and Dwight Schar.

"It's the worst it's been in the 20 years I've been practicing," Frankel said, "both the size and the quantity of cases."

Until recently, the Washington area certainly wasn't known as a capital of bankruptcy filings. Big multibillion-dollar bankruptcies of national companies are usually filed in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, where the bankruptcy courts overflow with the failures of companies the size of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., Eastern Air Lines and Campeau Corp.

The growing volume of work here reflects the downturn in the local real estate market, the tougher credit policies of banks and the general economic slide.

Names as familiar as National Bank of Washington, Garfinckel's, Fantle's drugstores and Stern Office Furniture Inc. have made bankruptcy a brisk business for lawyers.

All this gives members of the bankruptcy bar -- fewer than 200 attorneys out of nearly 55,000 lawyers in the metropolitan area -- a lot of leverage on the job market these days.

It's a phenomenon that coincides with what bankruptcy lawyer Murray Drabkin of Cadwalader, Wickershan & Taft calls the gentrification of bankruptcy: As bankruptcy has become a respectable tool for business, it also has become a respectable area of legal practice.

"Some firms that shied away or did it only as a part of corporate practices are now doing it full time," said bankruptcy attorney Stanley Samorajczyk. He noted that when he came out of law school in 1979, only small firms had bankruptcy practices. He now directs a staff of 11 bankruptcy attorneys at the Hazel & Thomas firm that does work for both creditors and debtors.

The rush to create bankruptcy departments may be a case of overzealous marketing on the part of some law firms, said one bankruptcy attorney.

"It's not clear to me that there's really an explosion of work," said the attorney, who asked not to be identified. "There is a faddish element to it. ... The herd has decided that having a bankruptcy lawyer in-house is the thing to do."

And firms hiring a single attorney may find it not worth the effort.

"A single bankruptcy lawyer is kind of like a single termite," said the attorney. "It doesn't work well. You need horsepower. A single lawyer can be overwhelmed by a big bankruptcy case."

Because of the rush of business, law firms are creating new bankruptcy departments, either by hiring away experienced attorneys or training lawyers from other, less busy fields, to do bankruptcy law. The latter doesn't always work, legal experts said.

"Certainly, there are a lot of people holding themselves out as being workout experts who were real estate lawyers three months ago," said Dan Litt, a bankruptcy attorney who recently left Melrod, Redman & Gartlan to head the bankruptcy practice at Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin. "It's not the same thing."

"You can't create them {bankruptcy lawyers} overnight just like you can't create a tax lawyer overnight," said Samorajczyk, who said that his case load in the past year has at least doubled.

"Real estate today is the subject of a lot of bankruptcy, but there is little similarity between doing real estate work and doing bankruptcy work. I don't see the logical slip from one to another."

Complicated bankruptcy and workout cases can take years of legal work -- and can mean thousands of lucrative billable hours. But attorneys who file bankruptcy petitions for companies do have a check point: Judges must approve their fees and sometimes cut them or provide bonuses for work well done.

Litt, Frankel and Leach are three of a number of senior bankruptcy attorneys who have recently switched firms as the frenzy for bankruptcy attorneys grows.

Carol L. Hoshall left Lerch, Early, Roseman & Brewer for Tucker, Flyer; Stephanie Wickouski left the same firm for Washington, Perito and Dubuc; and Roger Whelan left Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti for Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge.

Frankel is an example of an attorney who looked for a firm that could handle bigger cases. He left Lerch, Early for Arent, Fox, where he has 15 people in the bankruptcy department and another 15 involved in workout cases.

"I really found I needed the support a big firm could give me," said Frankel, who said that real estate workouts can involve dealing with 40 to 50 real estate properties at once and require the manpower that only a large firm can give.

Even with a big staff, the work can be crushing, the attorneys said.

Many said they are working six to seven days a week -- harder than they've ever worked in their lives -- and seldom see spouses and children.

Frankel complains that his golf game has gotten terrible.

But there may be more help in their future. Law schools report that more of their graduates are interested in bankruptcy law. And there is all that expertise coming from Texas.

Garrison, the legal headhunter, is working with several Texas bankruptcy lawyers who want to come here.

"They're eyeing this market as an area where things are going to get worse before it gets better," Garrison said.

"Texas has been through the worst of times and is entering better times. They see the slide here as just beginning."