Unless building owners and their agents learn to adapt to the bargaining atmosphere fostered by the District's strong tenant protection laws in condominium conversions, they may be spending most of their time in court rather than the sales office, a conference of local real estate professionals was told Thursday.

Attorney Ann Garfinkle warned that building owners must work with tenant groups because: "Out of chaos comes litigation." Garfinkle has represented residents in about 25 tenant-sponsored conversions.

"I can -- and any other competent counsel can -- tie up a landlord's sale to a third-party purchaser for two, three or four years," Garfinkle declared. "It's just a matter of fighting."

The seminar, featuring several real estate attorneys and a representative of the mayor's office, was sponsored by the Washington Board of Realtors. "There's a lot of confusion over the law," noted Mary Ellen Altman, organizer of the forum.

Housing lawyer Abraham J. Greenstein summed up real estate owners' feelings concerning the city's Rental Housing Conversion and Sale Act of 1980. That act gave tenant groups the right of first refusal to match any offer on their building and provided strong legal protection against displacement for elderly residents.

"It's been called everything from a piece of housing and social reform legislation, to a 'confiscation-of-property' act, to an employment bill for lawyers and consultants," he observed.

Greenstein termed the law, passed to stem the once-rampant spate of condominium and cooperative conversions in the District, "a detailed and often cumbersome piece of legislation."

Greenstein led the audience through the intricate maze of legal requirements for an owner seeking to begin conversion. "As a matter of approach" when dealing with tenant organizations, he said, "you ought to provide what's most helpful and least likely to lead to an adversary relationship."

Under the complicated law, noted James Ball of the Shannon and Luchs real estate firm, he'd rather pay than fight. "Many times, it's just better to pay off the tenants than to to deal with it," he said. "And they'll vacate the building."