Ethical Consideration for Federal Government Attorneys
By Dawinder S. Sidhu
Dawinder S. Sidhu is an attorney with the U.S. Department of Education in the Washington, D.C., area and a former law clerk to a federal district court judge. He can be contacted at
On my first day as an attorney for a federal agency, I was surprised to learn that there are a number of ethical guidelines that significantly constrain the activities of federal government employees. If you are considering a government service job or already work in a federal office, be particularly mindful of the following ethical rules.
Generally, a federal employee must obtain approval prior to agreeing to teach, speak, write, or consult (even if on a voluntary basis) in any area that relates to the employee’s official duties or that involves a prohibited source.
A federal employee is prohibited from soliciting political contributions from the general public even when off duty and is prohibited from wearing political buttons while on duty or in a government building.
Additionally, a federal employee is prohibited from acting as an agent or attorney before any “agency . . . in connection with any covered matter in which the U.S. is a party or has a direct and substantial interest.” For example, a federal employee may prepare a friend’s taxes but may not represent that friend in an audit before the IRS.
There is no expectation of privacy on a federal government employee’s computer. Any electronic communications transmitted on that computer may be monitored and subject to public release under the Freedom of Information Act.
Generally, a federal employee may only make personal use of government resources for a de minimus amount. For example, calling a family member from work to briefly notify him or her that you will be late to a scheduled dinner or event would likely fall within the de minimus standard.
It may appear that the ethical rules federal government employees must follow, both in the office and outside of it, online and off line, are quite restrictive. However, it is important to remember that as individuals working on behalf of the people, these rules help ensure that government employees do not abuse the public’s sacred trust.
The ethical guidelines for each federal agency may vary, so consult your agency’s ethics office for a complete and accurate list of applicable ethics rules.
• Everyday Ethics for Government Attorneys (Audio CD). 2005. PC # CET05EEGC. Center for CLE, Section of State & Local Government Law, Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, and Center for Professional Responsibility. To order online, visit