Every spring, some of the most accomplished lawyers in America assemble in Washington for a two-day private tribute to the man who gave them their first big job: the chief justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist.

But this year's annual reunion of Rehnquist's former law clerks, which took place over the weekend of June 11 and 12, felt bittersweet. The dozens of ex-aides who came from across the country sensed it might be an occasion not only to hail but also, several noted, to say farewell to the man they know simply as "the chief."

With Rehnquist, 80, suffering from thyroid cancer, his remaining time on the court is believed by many to be counted in days, not months or even weeks. Rehnquist is widely expected to retire at the end of the current term, at the end of this month.

Beyond that, the outlook for his health is uncertain.

"What I saw was a lot of emotion, and I interpreted it to be 'My God, this is a man we love who's been through a lot, and isn't it great he's here?' " said Joseph L. Hoffmann, a professor of law at Indiana University who clerked for Rehnquist during the court's 1985-1986 term.

Hoffmann, who has rarely attended the reunions, said he made a special effort to get to Washington on a weekend when he also had a high school graduation and a business meeting to attend.

The applause for Rehnquist was even more thunderous than usual when the justice, whose 33 years on the court have been exceeded by only seven others in history, walked into the court's Great Hall at 7 p.m. on June 11, according to people who were there.

Dinner tables had been set in that vast, marble-columned space to accommodate what some said was an all-time-high turnout by former clerks.

Rehnquist waved and flashed a smile before telling the group, "It's wonderful to see everyone, but that's all I'm going to do" -- an allusion to his difficulty speaking since October, when doctors performed an operation to help him breathe as the cancer encroached on his throat.

He thanked his clerks for their cards and visits, saying they had lifted his spirits during his illness.

The bond between Supreme Court justices and their law clerks is forged from shared in-chambers experiences that are as confidential as they are intense. Half a dozen sources who agreed to discuss the event with The Washington Post cited that relationship in insisting on anonymity.

The public may know Rehnquist as the sometimes frosty legal avatar of a law-and-order view of the Constitution. But the young clerks -- often products of lesser-known law schools -- whom Rehnquist picks for their legal ability and, he has said, their lack of pomposity, attest to his private kindness and sense of humor.

Several of those who saw the chief justice on June 11 said he appeared weak. "Obviously, he was a man whose health was going through a struggle," one former clerk said.

But Hoffmann, noting that Rehnquist has appeared on the bench to deliver opinions with his colleagues on each of the past six Mondays, said he thought his condition may have stabilized. "I did not have the feeling that . . . this is the last time we'll all do this," he said.

Though he has put in appearances at the croquet games and trivia contests of past reunions, the dinner was the only one of last weekend's events that Rehnquist attended this year. He remained for half an hour.

He was present just long enough to take in this year's version of the annual skit in which clerks impersonate the boss and satirize the events of the latest term.

In keeping with the valedictory mood, this year's skit was a spoof of the game show "To Tell the Truth," with one current clerk and four former clerks, including some from Rehnquist's early years on the court, pretending to be the boss.

The gag was that each represented the chief justice as he looked during a different era of his tenure. The '70s edition of the chief justice came equipped with pasted-on sideburns. Sideburns were Rehnquist's tonsorial trademark in those days.

John G. Roberts, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit -- and the subject of much speculation that he might be named by President Bush to succeed Rehnquist -- played the Rehnquist of 1980, the year Roberts clerked.

Two of Rehnquist's fellow members of the court, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy, contributed videotaped messages to the occasion.

Scalia brought the house down by jokingly denying any ambitions to be chief justice himself. He would rather be pope, he quipped, according to witnesses.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, suffering from thyroid cancer, is widely expected to retire at the end of the Supreme Court's current term.