NEW YORK (AP) _ Steven Romer probably stole more from his clients than any lawyer in American history, but he may not hold the record for long: More and more attorneys are bilking the people they are supposed to be looking out for.

Romer was sentenced Monday to a maximum of 22 1/2 years in prison and ordered to repay more than $7 million, including an orphan's inheritance.

''It's happening all over the nation - the economic recession is taking its toll,'' said Frederick Miller, director of the New York State Bar's client protection fund and chairman of an American Bar Association commission on such funds.

''In many cases, the money goes to feed a compulsive habit - gambling, alcohol, drugs.''

Lawyers in all but a few states tax themselves to provide a fund to help reimburse those victimized by their dishonest colleagues. The past year was a busy and difficult one for such funds:

- In Massachusetts, the number of lawyers disciplined for stealing from clients rose 65 percent. The bar association paid $1 million in reimbursements, compared to an average of $270,000 a year over the previous five years.

- In Florida, because of a rise in clients seeking reimbursement, the fund had to reduce the amount of individual payments so every deserving claimant could get something.

- In North Dakota, the fund was driven out of business by several huge claims against lawyers with cocaine habits.

- In New York State, the number of claims climbed to 515, compared with 311 in 1987; the fund faced claims of $35 million against assets of $2 million; and the maximum individual payment had to be reduced from $100,000 to $50,000.

The New York program is the nation's largest. It has compensated clients of lawyers ranging from Robert Anderson, a former U.S. treasury secretary whose signature appeared on currency from 1957 to 1961, to Joel Steinberg, the child killer.

A widow lost her life's savings of $251,485 when Anderson covertly deposited the money in an uninsured offshore bank that he started. Steinberg kept $400 that was supposed to have been held in escrow for a client.

They were pikers compared to Romer, who may have stolen some $15 million. According to prosecutors and court records, other members of the larcenous lawyers' million-dollar club include:

- Jack B. Solerowitz of Long Island, an 86-year-old who stole $6.8 million from clients, according to complaints. He moved from his $5 million home into a prison after receiving a 5- to 15-year sentence in 1990.

- William A. Hamann Jr. stole more than $2 million from 18 estates and trusts in the Cleveland area. He was sentenced last year to 84 to 120 years in prison.

- Lloyd Cohen stole $1.4 million from clients in Bergen County, N.J., including a widow who lost her life's savings of $178,000. He received an 11- year sentence in 1989.

- Pat F. Nesci of Southampton bilked clients out of as much as $1.2 million. He was sentenced last year to two to six years in prison.

Lawyers caught stealing from their clients are disbarred, disgraced and often jailed. Attorneys say the vast majority of lawyers give clients their best, but the specter of the advocate-turned-predator haunts the profession.

As divorce lawyer Raoul Felder once said, ''For every lawyer whose multimillion-dollar thievery appears in the press, there are multitudes of others ... whose stealing is circumscribed only by the size of the cookie jar.''

Typically, rogue lawyers' easiest marks are the very clients most in need of someone to protect their money: the incompetent and the illiterate, the very young and the very old.

Romer, a father of 11, stole more than $700,000 from a college student who had been left the money by her parents; she gave it to Romer to invest, since he had been her parents' attorney.

Eugene Costello of Denver was sentenced to three years in 1990 for stealing $1.2 million from clients, including a home for retarded children he had represented for 40 years.

Romer, an inventor, spent some of the money he stole on an electric car, and he blames General Motors for his downfall. Hamann bought four horses and financed his son's quest to become an Olympic equestrian.

Nesci, on the other hand, ''was just unable to maintain a profitable practice'' without stealing, according to his lawyer. ''A lot of clients he never charged anything. He just had absolutely no business sense.''

Edward S. Digges Jr. of Annapolis, Md., who bilked his largest corporate client out of $3.1 million, told a psychiatrist he used the money to buy a 310-acre estate on Maryland's Eastern Shore and recapture some happy moments from an otherwise unhappy childhood.