A decade ago, when probers sought a possibly sinister common thread linking those government officials who were convicted of Watergate-related crimes, they found at least one: most of the accused were lawyers.
Even before Watergate, the US legal profession carried the albatross of a shabby (if undeserved) public perception - one of high-priced shysters with few scruples and more concern for career advancement than for the cause of justice. Now, an era of counselor-masterminded break-ins and dirty tricks has further downgraded its credibility.
According to public-opinion polls, lawyers today continue to enjoy about the same public trust and respect as journalists. They rank a bit higher than ''second story'' men but far lower than most other professionals.
Predictably, lawyer involvement in Watergate prodded, at least temporarily, a closer look at how the nation's legal minds were molded. Law school education, critics averred, should include more than the teaching of torts and the penning of briefs. It should embrace the concepts of ethics and social responsibility. In response, some law schools dusted off their long-stashed-away courses on professional conduct and reintroduced questions of moral right and wrong in classroom discussions.
In the intervening 10 years, the traditional curricula have undergone little change - despite a flurry of training in public-interest law, a significant invasion of women and minorities into student ranks, and raised voices from high places saying that legal education in the United States is missing its mark.
In fact, as government funds for legal aid to the poor began to dry up under the Reagan administration's fiscal belt-tightening policies, altruistic young barristers found few outlets, and little compensation, in poverty law. And many law schools questioned the practicality of training lawyers for a specialty that promised limited potential employment.
Meanwhile, law educators are engaged in an ongoing debate over the virtues of teaching theory vs. practice. The present trend is toward clinical education, the honing of professional legal skills. ''We must do more than train lawyers to do book reviews on opinions of law,'' maintains Anthony G. Amsterdam, dean of clinical law at New York University.
Norman Redlich, NYU's law school dean, explains that this clinical approach is relatively new - and its use in the curricula certainly varies within the nation's almost 200 law schools.
Dean Redlich further points out that most US law schools, unlike those in other nations, endeavor to bridge the gap between the ''professional school that tries to be part of the university'' and the one that tries to ''relate to the profession at the same time.''
By contrast, outside the US, law is usually a subject on a par with philosophy, history, English, and other undergraduate studies. So for most other countries, the task of professional training is left to the legal firms themselves.
But regardless of the tug of war between theoretical training and more practical academics for law students, legal educators still feel the basic functions of a law school are (1) to train its graduates to make a living; (2) to provide qualified members for the practicing bar and bench; (3) to produce alumni who will contribute to the enrichment of the legal system; (4) to prepare state and federal government leaders, including state and federal lawmakers; and (5) to transmit information to broaden public understanding about the law and its importance in a democratic society.
Some law administrators suggest that legal academies should also be molding minds that will provide moral and ethical leadership for the nation. But there is admittedly a difference of opinion regarding just how to do this.
Meanwhile, high-level attacks on the legal profession and its role in society continue to reflect back on the process by which lawyers are trained.
For instance, Harvard president Derek Bok, a lawyer and former law dean, fired off a salvo against lawyers a year ago which is still rocking the profession. President Bok claimed that the US legal system is ''grossly inequitable and inefficient.'' More specifically, he charged that law schools were skimming off top college graduates for pursuits ''that often add little to the growth of the economy, the pursuit of culture, or the enhancement of the human spirit.''
And Warren E. Burger, chief justice of the United States - in taking lawyers to task for playing the role of ''hired guns'' rather than trying to be ''healers'' of problems - took an indirect but sharp poke at law schools by saying that many lawyers were inadequately prepared to argue cases in court.
Mr. Burger's main concern has been surging legal costs, courtroom clog, and inadequate access to the justice system for many citizens. But for solving the problem he advocates not so much a rethinking of training for the bar as a use of out-of-court alternatives, such as informal hearings, arbitration, negotiation, and neighborhood adjudication.
Mr. Bok, on the other hand, chides his own and other law schools for their focus on training practitioners for successful careers rather than conditioning them for solving broader problems in society.
Meanwhile, those institutions that prepare the nation's lawyers are responding by:
* Initiating unique law school programs that involve work-study projects, such as the newly initiated focus on public interest law at the City University of New York in Queens.
* Actively recruiting more women and minorities into legal programs. Right now, almost 40 percent of present law students in the US are females. If present standards prevail, however, women lawyers can expect their first salaries to lag
* Opening the door, if slightly, for paralegal services, via legal clinics and other projects that ease legal costs by using nonlawyers for routine legal functions. The American Bar Association avidly resists, as it has for years, the use of nondegree lawyers for official pretrial and courtroom functions. But some compromises are in the works.
Another major question that law schools must still answer, especially in light of escalating costs, is the one asked by Georgetown University's associate law dean, Judy Areen: Who gets into the elite law schools?