How to Find Meaningful Work as a City Lawyer

Suzanne Sangree
Take the lead and gain court experience in a wide variety of legal issues.

Take the lead and gain court experience in a wide variety of legal issues.

DW labs Incorporated via Shutterstock

City government is where an energized, creative attorney can have great impact, particularly early in one’s career. President Obama reminds us that “change comes from the bottom up.” His words strike the historic American theme that state and local governments are the “laboratories for democracy.” See New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932) (Dissent, J. Louis Brandeis, “[a] state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”).

Lawyers for cities function as the enzymes in these laboratories. The lawyer’s “no” can nix a novel approach to solving a problem; whereas his or her creative, “here’s how we can lawfully do it,” enables solutions.

The need for creative solutions is great. How can economic development be fostered in a post-industrial city in the context of globalization? What powers of condemnation can the city exercise to further development plans? What tax incentives can be granted, or loop holes closed? How can local hiring for government funded projects be leveraged? How can the city increase the tree canopy, recycling, solar power, and permeable surfaces? How can non-profit institutions (universities, hospitals, and churches), which own large portions of city real estate, be motivated to contribute to the cost of the social infrastructures from which they benefit? How can cities increase public safety and protect individual rights when entrenched gangs pursue the billion-dollar trades in drugs, guns, and humans? How can schools open opportunities for children traumatized by violence, drug-ravaged homes, or parents in prison? How can cities minimize the damage of racially targeted predatory lending and foreclosures? Can cities hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for costs combating the heroin epidemic, which is fueled by prescription pain killers? How do cities regulate the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana as it is legalized? The list of challenging issues is almost endless.

The new municipal lawyer has the opportunity to work with seasoned colleagues to solve these complex legal challenges. Each solution entails significant legal components, from the procurement of body cameras for police, to combat litigation against multinational banks, cell phone carriers, and manipulators of municipal derivatives, and more.

Our greatest challenge—limited resources—also presents great opportunity for new lawyers. Generally this means that a competent, motivated individual will soon come to hold as much responsibility as he or she can possibly manage. The new municipal lawyer has the opportunity to take the lead and gain court experience in a wide variety of legal issues. These include the defense of lawsuits arising from slip and falls on sidewalks. Defense of such suits protects cities from unreasonable demands to maintain aging infrastructure. If these demands were appeased, they could divert scarce resources from important social programs, such as city swimming pools or lunch programs for kids.

City lawyers across the country are quick to report that our work is not boring. Indeed, it is more varied than even the most creative law school exam questions (you cannot make it up!), and it directly impacts people’s lives. George Nilson is the Baltimore City Solicitor, a former Deputy Attorney General for Maryland, and a partner at DLA Piper. He explains, “City lawyers often get to see the tangible results of their work in a way that is rare in state government or private practice. There is tremendous satisfaction in seeing the fruit of one’s efforts.”

Baltimore’s recruiting practices might be typical of other large cities. While attorneys apply at all stages in their careers to join the Baltimore City Law Department, our two largest applicant pools are attorneys with five to seven years of experience and those toward the end of their careers, who are retiring from private practice. Baltimore does not generally hire straight from law school, though exceptions are made on occasion for exceptionally qualified candidates, especially for contract positions.

Our ranks are strengthened by a large contingent of what some might call “refugees” from private firms, who enjoy second careers “doing good” while enjoying flexible schedules, freedom from time sheets, and freedom from the pressure to bring in business. These seasoned attorneys apply expert skills and insight from the private sector. They provide invaluable mentoring to less experienced attorneys.

Freed from the constraints of billable hours, our attorneys are encouraged to collaborate. We work with open doors and have frequent consultation and strategy sessions. For the young municipal attorney, job satisfaction runs high.

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Suzanne Sangree

Suzanne Sangree is senior public safety counsel at the Baltimore City Law Department in Baltimore, Maryland.