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Because of the impact of the war on drugs, criminal lawyers labeled guilty by association are defending themselves for defending drug dealers, some attorneys and others say.

``Criminal lawyers are accustomed to feeling at times they are alone,' said Raleigh attorney Wade Smith. ``At times you feel you walk into a courtroom with a person, and you are absolutely despised and so is the defendant. It isn't like it's something new, but it is especially difficult to take drug cases.``I talk with lawyers who just basically shrug and say, 'I just don't want to take any more. It's not worth it,' ' he said.

``There was a time when the major problem was getting a client to hire you,' David Rudolf of Chapel Hill told his fellow lawyers at an ethics seminar in Raleigh last week. ``The sad truth is, today, that's when your major problems begin - when you get hired.'

Lawyers say the public pronounces them guilty by association, politicians say they are unfit for public office and the government suspects that their fees may be the ill-gotten gains of drug dealing.

Defense lawyers who campaign for office are held accountable for their clients. Political ads in Jim Gardner's 1988 campaign for lieutenant governor attacked his opponent, Tony Rand, a Fayetteville lawyer, for his representation of a drug dealer.

``He has no ethical responsibility to represent somebody who sells drugs,' Gardner said during the campaign. ``If I were an attorney, I would not represent anybody who sells drugs.' Rand, who lost the election, responded with a libel suit, still pending against Gardner.

And last week, Mike Easley, a prosecutor and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, accused supporters of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., of running a whisper campaign against Easley's wife, a lawyer. Easley said the senator's supporters had been spreading the word that she was a drug lawyer, when she had handled only a few small-time drug cases.

``The ones of us who are doing this for a living have given up our ability to run for public office, to hold judgeships,' said Joseph B. Cheshire V of Raleigh, whose clients have included Doc McGhee, manager of the rock group Bon Jovi, who pleaded guilty in North Carolina to drug smuggling charges.

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