SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Lawyers from the U.S. mainland, stung by charges they descended ''like vultures'' following the fatal Dupont Plaza Hotel fire, said Wednesday that clients are coming to them, not the other way around.

''What is unethical is that almost 100 people died because of the hotel's negligence,'' said John P. Coale. His Washington-based firm, Coale & Kananack, has handled claims stemming from other mass disasters, including the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India.

''The issue is pretty ridiculous and a waste of time,'' said Coale, who has 13 clients so far.

A Puerto Rican associate of Guerry Thornton, an Atlanta attorney who came here after the Dec. 31 fire, said neither Thornton nor the local firm of Moreda, Moreda and Arrillaga have solicited clients at the scene.

''I don't think we have directly solicited,'' said the associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Thornton has returned to Atlanta and was not immediately available.

Coale and Thornton were among a handful of lawyers from the U.S. mainland who took on clients following the New Year's Eve fire, which authorities have said was arson, that killed 96 people and injured 140 at the Dupont Plaza.

The lawyer's presence has irritated some survivors - and some Puerto Rican attorneys.

Luis Davila Colon of the Puerto Rico Bar Association said, ''The American lawyers are like vultures who come to look for clients.''

The daughter of Isabella Portella, 64, a Puerto Rican hospitalized with leg fractures and a back injury, said: ''There have been a lot of lawyers coming here. People from the hotel, and other people.'' The daughter, who would not give her name, added: ''I think they're showing disrespect.''

Two lawsuits totalling $19 million have already been filed in federal court, one on behalf of a dead man's family, the other for an injured man. More lawsuits are expected.

Otto Farkas of Montreal, a guest at the Dupont Plaza, said he had been approached by a private investigator but had not signed any contracts.

Meanwhile, the Dupont Plaza's attorney, James Fetterly, 50, of the Minneapolis, Minn., firm of Fetterly & Gordon, said he and four associates are prepared to stay on the island ''as long as need be.''

''My efforts are concentrating on fire litigation,'' said Fetterly in a brief interview at a hotel where Dupont Plaza management set up an temporary office.

Fetterly helped represent more than 200 people who filed suit after the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel fire killed 87people in 1980. The MGM case was settled in April 1982.