''At first it was the women lawyers who wanted more time for their children; now it's the men!'' Those words, says Herma Kay, come from a young woman lawyer whom Ms. Kay taught in the early '70s. To Kay - a tenured professor since 1963 at Boalt Law School at the University of California here - this anecdote offers one small indication of how a tremendous surge in the number of women law students is affecting the law schools they attend and the vocation they enter.
Slowly, the perspectives of this staid profession are changing.
No one suggests that women law students have brought about any revolutions. But law professors, practicing lawyers, students, and observers of the legal profession say the more than 20-fold increase in women law students over the past two decades has changed the way courses are taught, as well as the way women are viewed by the legal minds that teach them - and by the men with whom they study and work. Moreover, the unabated wave of women lawyers has begun to alter the way law firms do their business, and it may even be affecting the way law is practiced in the United States.
At the same time, these same people say that while barriers to women law students continue to crumble, many hurdles remain for aspiring women.
Those barriers ''are not all broken down,'' says Joanne Garvey, the first woman elected to the governing board of the California State Bar Association. Although Ms. Garvey feels it is ''too soon to tell'' whether women will face continued resistance as more of them move toward positions of power in law, she notes that ''the transition continues as more women move up.''
Twenty years ago, women constituted less than 4 percent of the 50,000 students in law school. Last October there were 47,980 women in US law schools, according to the American Bar Association, or 37 percent of a total 127,195 students. And the number of women students continues to increase, even as total law student numbers dip - from a high of 127,828 in 1982.
Today, even as lingering differences between men and women in career selection continue to blur, women may still have a special motivation for choosing a profession such as law. ''I think a desire for a degree of legitimacy is a lot of the reason why many women are here,'' says Elizabeth Henderson, a third-year student at Yale Law School. It's more important for women than for men, she says, to gain confidence and to be taken seriously. She adds that, by virtue of the flexibility it offers, the law degree has become for many women ''the BA of the '80s.''
Although law schools continue to teach the traditional subjects - constitutional law, torts, property, et al. - and primarily by the case method, some legal educators believe the increased number of women law students has had an effect on how those courses are taught. ''We have not seen any fundamental changes in the curriculum,'' says Ronald Chester, a professor at New England School of Law in Boston and author of ''Unequal Access: Women Lawyers in a Changing America.'' ''But what's important are the changes in existing courses - more emphasis on sex discrimination would be one example.''
''What we have is a different filter on the camera,'' adds Marjorie Schultz, a professor at Boalt. With increased participation by women, ''Issues that were not seen emerge,'' she says, in such areas as civil rights, property, pay equity , even crime and self-defense.
It is not just women students who legitimize issues important to women. Women faculty members are another key; yet their numbers have been slow to increase.
According to the Society of American Law Teachers, women constituted 13 percent of all (tenured and nontenured) law teachers in 1983, up from 7.6 percent in 1976. A recent study by the organization found that, while there is no significant difference in the rate of denial of tenure for men and women, there is a much higher resignation rate among women before tenure is attained.
''This could be the result of a signaling to more women that they won't receive tenure,'' suggests Nancy Erikson, a professor at the Ohio State University Law School. Another reason, she says, could be that tenure decisions are often coincident with childbearing decisions.
Having women teach in the law schools is important not only for feminine insights they may give, but also for the examples they give as successful women in the legal profession, most observers agree. ''I never realized how important the role model is,'' says Lea Brilmayer, the only tenured woman at Yale Law School. But she says she began to understand when she switched from graduate math studies to law at UC Berkeley.
''I was so impressed when I found that Herma Kay was a full professor,'' Professor Brilmayer says. ''For me, it was like coming out of the desert.''
Admitting that ''my worst nightmare is that at my retirement dinner I'll still be the only tenured woman on the Yale law faculty,'' she has begun a special project to assist women students interested in teaching law.
The need for role models continues beyond law school and into the profession, especially as women seek to enter positions of power. ''It's important that someone be there to answer the question of 'have you done it before, how do you do it,' '' says Ms. Garvey, who has been a partner with a San Francisco firm for 16 years.
And it becomes crucial as women realize that they haven't become partners as fast as their numbers and experience suggest they should. This is true even though most women find law firms, especially those in large cities, to be ''sex blind'' in assigning work - something that hasn't always been the case.
A recent survey of the country's largest law firms, conducted by the National Law Journal, shows that while women are 30 percent of all associates, they are only 5 percent of all partners. Experts say this gap is explained by a number of factors. Principal among these is the economic argument, that women will not have the contacts to bring in the business that men will. Another concern, which some women say is only couched sexism, is that many clients are still uneasy with women handling their legal affairs.
Another major block to partnership is the frequent coincidence of the years when partnership is offered and when childbearing is attractive. Ms. Garvey says more women are putting off having children until they've become partners.
But women lawyers say the question of maternity leave and work hours has not been fully addressed by most law firms. Part-time work is one solution many women lawyers would like to see explored more fully. Too often, they say, it has meant part-time pay for full-time work.
Still, the presence of women who are ''self-selecting themselves out of the running,'' as one lawyer said, seems to be as important an explanation as factors, such as sexism, that are beyond their control.
''There are more women than men for whom partnership is not attractive,'' says Jamienne Studley, who worked two years at a New York firm before becoming an associate dean at Yale Law School. The long hours and commitment demanded by many firms, and a greater interest among women in government or public-service legal work, are reasons she cites.
But the biggest change she has seen is in the attitudes of men. In part due to the example women have provided, she says, ''Men are beginning to think more critically about their choices.''
The result of the wave of women lawyers may be that both sexes will have more choice. Donna MacKenna, a 1982 graduate of New York University Law School, is one woman who is thriving at a large law firm. Specializing in litigation - a field once considered too demanding for women - Ms. MacKenna feels she hasn't been treated differently because she is a woman. ''We are all judged on what we do,'' she says. And although she is married, she adds that her personal life is not disrupted unreasonably. ''There are late nights, and some weekend work. But I think they pay me enough that they have a right to expect that.''
To what extent women will continue to increase their influence in the legal profession can only be guessed. Some legal experts say that, already, an increase of women lawyers has meant a growth in the use of negotiation and bargaining as opposed to adversarial methods of settlement. Professor Chester believes that a higher priority given to arbitration and mediation in law school courses since the '60s is in part attributable to an increase in women law students and teachers.
Others suggest that a fortunate result may be better-balanced lawyers - both men and women. ''Certainly one result of having more women in the (law) schools is less rigidity in the sex lines,'' says Professor Kay. ''I would hope that the law, too, would reflect more of the best qualities that are inherent in all of us.''