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A Day in the Life of a County Attorney

By Regina Nassen

Most counties have an elected official who serves as the head of the primary criminal prosecuting agency for the county—typically called a “state’s attorney,” or “district attorney.” In some states the title of the elected prosecutor is “county attorney,” and typically in that case the elected official is also the head of the county’s legal department. In other states, the lawyers in the legal department are appointed by the county governing body (typically called a board of supervisors).

So, what do lawyers in the legal department of a county government do? Deputy county attorneys handle everything from drafting complex real estate contracts to filing civil commitment cases for individuals who are a danger to themselves or others to providing legal opinions when the county issues bonds to raise money for capital projects. Counties are typically assigned a very broad range of responsibilities, which means that a deputy county attorney’s advice function is extremely varied as well. Deputy county attorneys may also defend the county when it gets sued, though some counties outsource tort or other specialized defense to outside counsel. They also typically have a robust role assisting the county with regulation enforcement, including building codes, environmental regulations, zoning, health codes, and animal care.

As a result, a deputy county attorney’s day is rarely boring, especially in smaller counties that may only have a handful of lawyers. Consultations with county departments are constant. Does the county have the authority to pass a ban or incentive? Does the state have the authority to force the county to abide by a preemptive mandate? We have a contractor on a big road project that’s in default, can we sue them? We let a procurement contract for toilet paper lapse and we’re going to run out before we can complete a new procurement process, can we justify an emergency procurement? A deputy county attorney also helps the county enter into intergovernmental agreements with the municipalities in the county to coordinate crisis response functions, evaluates summons and complaints that were served on a department, and reviews public records requests.

And through it all, by assisting your client, you’re really helping the public. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to hike through a county open-space preserve that you helped acquire; to drive on a road that you, in your own small way, helped build; or to reach a defense verdict for a wrongly-accused deputy sheriff. And you’ll have wonderful, talented colleagues at your side who are there, just like you, to do the right thing—which thankfully doesn’t include tracking your time in six-minute increments or managing a client trust account.

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Regina Nassen

Deputy County Attorney in the Civil Division of the Pima County Attorney's Office

Regina Nassen has served as a Deputy County Attorney in the Civil Division of the Pima County Attorney’s Office in Tucson, Arizona, since 2003. She is council member of the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Divsion.