The MASS EXODUS of high-ranking lawyers from government service that some had feared as a result of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 has not materialized.

Instead, there has been a slow drain of legal talent from the government - rough estimates are that the agencies may have lost three or four top lawyers - and a lot of complaining.

It's not just that the law is unfair, some government lawyers say - it's insulting.

On July 1, and again in October, the act will place tough restrictions on high-ranking lawyers who move from government to private practice. There is one year "no-contact" rule between the lawyer and his former agency, and a two-year ban (up from one year) on private representation in cases in which the lawyer - as government employe - had official responsibility. And there is a two-year ban on making a personal appearance in a case where the lawyer was "personally substantially" involved for the government.

The original act was softened to make it more liveable for government employes and to avert the much talked about "brain drain." But the revised edition still leaves the lawyers grumbling.

"I had been looking and thinking about a change in jobs," said Galen D. Powers, who until last Wednesday was assistant general counsel for health care financing - medicare and medicaid - at the Department of Health Education and Welfare.

"My thought was if I didn't want to continue my government career . . . I better get out before the act began to affect me," said Powers, who has been with the government for 13 years.

Powers will open the Washington office of Weissburg and Aronson, Inc. of Los Angeles - one fo the very few health law firms in the country. He will join a private bar that represents hospitals, nursing homes and doctors - all of which is closely tied to programs and policies at HEW.

Like Powers, whose expertise is finely tuned to the federal agency where he once worked, some government lawyers complain they would be useless in private practice if they were kept away from the agencies for a year. And, they say, the restrictions make them less attractive than other lawyers in terms of selling their skills to the law firms.

Others who recently have announced their departure from the government say they planned to get out anyway, that they wanted to make money and that the new rules just changed their timing.

"That one-year provision is a stinker," said Lee R. Marks, who until last Friday was the No. 2 lawyer at the State Department.

"I happen to believe that the government is the net winner in a system that makes it easy for people to ocome in and out," said Marks, who added he expects to join the Washington law firm of Ginsburg, Feldman and Bress. To Marks, abuses that come with the so-called revolving door "are relatively the exception."

For Richard W Beckler, who left the government on June 1 for a partnership with Fulbright and Jaworski after six years at the Justice Department, the one-year no contact rule is "kind of offensive.

"I really would't come within 1,000 yards of any case I had been involved with at Justice," said Beckler, who most recently was the acting chief of the fraud division there.

To lawyers like Beckler, who describes his stock in trade as "litigation in the federal court," a one-year ban on confrontation with the government in the courthouse is simply unacceptable.

The rules would mean "I'm not doing what I like best and people are being deprived of the right to have me defend them," Beckler said.

There is one lawyer in town who is not about to leave his government job. After 10 years in New York with Simpson Thacher and Bartlett, and earning an admittedly healthy salary, Bernhardt K. Wruble moved to Washington in 1977 to become a government lawyer. Now he's the director of the Office of Government Ethics and the lawyer in charge of getting the kinks out of the Ethics Act.

Wruble knows that people are "still unhappy with the law generally" and that "federal employes would be happy to see it go away." But he is satisfied that the "brain drain" has been plugged and "very few people have left."

There is another aspect to the act, something that Galen Powers felt when he called around to the private bar in search of his successor. There were some lawyers, Powers said, who were not interested, because they didn't like the Ethics Act anymore than he did.

That concerns Wruble because "what would be bad is if they [the government agencies] couldn't get the people who are good to replace" the ones who left.

Conservative opposition to the nominations of assistant attorney general Patricia M. Wald and Rep. Abner J. Mikva (D-Ill.) to the U.S. Court of Appeals here is brewing. Wald's confirmation hearings are scheduled for 2 p.m. today and the witnesses include freshman Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R.-N.H.) of the New Right, who once said he intended to use his office as "a pulpuit to educate the citizenry."

A spokesman said Humphrey reviewed Wald's record and concluded that she was "wild and wacky" as far as the citizens of New Hampshire are concerned, particularly when it comes to her views on children's rights.

In a counter attack, a group of Wald supporters here - all past presidents, the current president and the presidene elect of the D.C. Bar - have written to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging confirmtion of her appointment.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, as expected, is trying to defeat Mikva's nomination. Mikva, a strong supporter of gun-control legislation, said he anticipated the flak.

"I'm not worried," Mikva said in a telephone interview, but, he added, "I would like it to be over with."

OBITER: @D. C. Mayor Marion Barry will address the annual meeting of the D.C. Bar on Wednesday at the Capitol Hilton Hotel. The guesses are that Barry, who said he wants to take questions and answers, will discuss a controversial proposal to give the city government control over local criminal prosecutions and give the mayor the power to appoint local judges. American Bar Association president elect Leonard Janofsky is the meeting's guest speaker . . . Louis P. Robbins has resigned as principal deputy D.C. Corporation Counsel to join Wilkes and Artis . . . Diana M. Daniels, assistant counsel to The Washington Post, will join Newsweek magazine in New York late this summer to become vice president and counsel . . . Robert F. Muse has left the city's Public Defender Service for private practice with Stein, Mitchell and Mezines . . . And the word from the lawyers' lounge at D. C. Superior Court is that Charlie Schaeffer, 80, the crusty dean of the Fifth Streeters, has returned to the court after a long illness.