Attorney General Griffin B. Bell said today that presidential confidant Charles Kirbo is subject to federal conflict-of-interest laws because under a strict, 14-year old statute, he is a "special employee" of the government.

Kirbo "is a special employee every time he advises the President," Bell told a news conference here, where he is attending the American Bar Association's winter meeting. No one can give the government advice "as a friend," Bell said; in this context, "there's no such thing as a friend."

Bell also said makes no difference under the statute that Kirbo, a partner in King and Spalding, the Atlanta law firm Bell left to become Attorney General, is not paid for advising President Carter.

Bell said he told Kirbo last November that he is in special-employee status, which prevents him from advising Carter or anyone else in government about any matter in which he or the law firm has a financial interest.

So far as is known, no friend of a past President who has provided unpaid advice in the White House has been formally classified as a special employee. The statute making such an employee subject to the conflict-of-interest laws took effect in January 1963, during the Kennedy administration.

Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo, for example, was a close confidant of President Nixon, but was not known to have been classified as a special employee.

In Atlanta, Kirbo confirmed to reporters that he is in special-employee status, although he collects neither a possible $100-a-day consultant's fee nor expenses when he comes to Washington.

When he comes to the White House, he said, he tries to help Carter carry out his campaign commitments and proposals, although at times he simply listens to the President.

The primary restraint of his special-employee status, he said, is that "you can't give any advice on any matter you have an interest in."

Bell responding to reporter's question, said that to avoid any possible conflict from arising out of his former partnership in King and Spalding he will, within a few days, provide Justice Department officials with a list of all of the law firm's clients. He said reporters will be able to see the list, which includes numerous large corporations.

Bell, who met with reporters after speaking briefly to the ABA's House of Delegates, said that Carter soon will issue an executive order creating commissions to propose candidates, on the basis of merit, for vacancies on U.S. courts of appeals.

Bell said the order will allow the commissions to proposed their candidates, rather than be bound to names submitted by senators from affected states.

The number of vacancies shortly will reach six. For each one, a commission will propose five names to the President, who will choose one of final nomination to the Senate. Each affected state will be represented on the commissions, each of which will have 11 members.

Some members will be laymen. Bell said that the draft White House order does not prohibit judges from being members, but that he doesn't know if Carter will agree with a suggestion for inclusion of judges that was made to the ABA Sunday by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.

All told, there will be 13 commissions - one for each of nine circuits, and two each for the huge fifth and ninth circuits in the South and Far West.

In his talk to the House of Delegates, Bell pleaded for a delay until the August meeting of the ABA's policy-making body on pending resolutions to overhaul the federal grand jury system.

By August, Bell said, he will have completed a review of the proposals. One of them would allow counsel to accompany witnesses in the grand jury room. At least tentatively, Bell said, he feels that this proposal would convert grand jury proceedings into secret trials, with the result that prosecutors would try to bypass grand juries and file charges by themselves.