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Never a Dull Moment: A Career in Public Service as a Local Government Attorney

Karla D. Carter

We live in a world subject to constant change and the pandemic is an example that has slapped us all in the face. Innovations in technology have accelerated due to COVID-19 and have changed the way we live, work, and communicate. These global changes have also altered the legal landscape for attorneys practicing law today, with technology changing the way we communicate with clients and providing for more efficient ways to serve them. While we live in an ever-changing world, certain things do not change: the need for basic services that assist us in our daily personal and professional lives. Safe roads, clean water, feeling safe from crime in our communities are only a few examples of the reasonable needs and expectations every human being should enjoy. While there is always an exception to the rule, most people look to their state and local governments to provide these amenities, with a lot of that responsibility falling to local governments. In turn, local governments look to their legal counsel for guidance on many important decisions.

Variety: The Spice of Life

Providing legal services to a locality is a privilege because of the tremendous opportunity it affords for a career in public service. The role of a local government attorney carries unique responsibilities that do not always carry over to the private sector. Considering that local governments may exercise a wide range of sovereign powers within their respective jurisdictions, the exercise of such power will undoubtedly have an impact on its citizenry in ways too numerous to count. Local governments influence the flow of commerce within their boundaries and are the gateway for economic development projects in their communities. Even in those states where a local government's power is limited to those powers expressly delegated by a state legislative authority and necessarily implied therefrom (as is the case in Virginia) , local governments wield great power to control development, commerce, and technology within its boundaries, making decisions which impact how people work, live, and play. A local government attorney plays a critical role in these decisions, providing advice and counsel on a wide range of topics, literally from A to Z. An assistant city attorney could handle a child abuse and neglect case on behalf of the local social services agency on Monday and attend a meeting on Wednesday with the city manager to discuss a contract involving the public zoo. The typical day of a local government attorney is always evolving and affords the local government practitioner opportunities for professional growth on a regular basis. By way of a real-life example, a typical week for me may involve negotiating complex land sales agreements for a multimillion dollar local economic development project, briefing members of City Council on an upcoming transportation project, or handling state administrative appeals on behalf of the local department of social services related to a child abuse and neglect matter. Having the ability to influence decisions which will impact your community in meaningful ways has made for a rewarding career for many attorneys who practice local government law.

Bye-Bye, Billable Hours. Hello, Quality of Life.

There is something to be said about having a good quality of life. The local government legal community is filled with attorneys who left private practice to work in local government. A common comment among attorneys leaving the private sector for local government is the poor quality of life they experienced under the billable hours model. While a local government attorney can spend late nights at the office preparing for a case or attending a city or county board meeting, for the most part, the hours are reasonable and somewhat predictable. Being home in time for Jeopardy! while still being able to earn a decent living is a win-win for many attorneys in public service.

Overall, a career as a local government attorney will provide exposure to so many areas of the law. Each day in a county or city attorney's office has the potential to bring with it novel and complex issues, often of first impression. As local governments respond to the changing needs of its citizenry, so must local government attorneys adapt to the changing needs of the community by providing sound and relevant legal advice to their local government client. The practice of local government law will continue to evolve with time and as information technology continues to develop, but the responsibility and duty of local governments to provide basic services to its citizenry will remain unchanged, as will the continuing need for competent legal services to assist local government in carrying out these important duties.

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    Karla Carter

    Assistant City Attorney

    Karla Carter is an Assistant City Attorney for the City of Suffolk, Virginia where she handles real estate, land use, economic development, and environmental matters for the City. Having practiced local government law exclusively for over 20 years, her background in local government law also includes child welfare, Native American real property rights, code enforcement, and franchises.