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After the Bar

Practice Areas & Settings

A Day in the Life of a County Attorney

Regina L Nassen

A Day in the Life of a County Attorney
Lilly Roadstones via GettyImages

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Every state is divided geographically into jurisdictions that—except in Alaska and Louisiana—are called counties. And most county governments include a legal department. In most, if not all, counties there is also an elected official who is 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 when that is the case, that 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). 

What Deputy County Attorneys Do

So, what do lawyers in the legal department of a county government do? (We’ll call them “deputy county attorneys,” though the title can vary.) The short answer is everything from drafting complex real-estate contracts to filing civil commitment cases (for individuals who are a danger to themselves or others) to giving 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 defense to outside counsel). And they typically have a robust role assisting the county with enforcing a variety of regulations—building codes, environmental regulations, zoning, health codes, animal care, etc.

A Day in the Life

As a result, a deputy county attorney’s day is rarely boring—especially in smaller counties that may only have a handful of lawyers! Phone calls and emails from county departments are constant.

  • Does the county have the authority to [fill in the blank]?
  • Does the state have the authority to force the county to [fill in the blank]?
  • We have a contractor on a big road project that’s in default; can we sue them?
  • Oops—we let this procurement contract for toilet paper lapse, and we’re going to run out before we can get through a new procurement process; can we justify an emergency procurement?
  • We want to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the municipalities in the county so we can coordinate our crisis response functions; can you help draft it?
  • Here’s a copy of a summons and complaint that was just served on one of our sheriff’s deputies—the plaintiff alleges that her civil rights were violated because the deputy used excessive force.
  • We got this public-records request, but aren’t some of these responsive documents confidential?

We Help the Public

And through it all, you know that by assisting your client, you’re helping the public. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to hike through an open-space preserve that you helped the county acquire; to drive on a road that you, in your own small way, helped build; to get 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! 

Get a peek into this exciting world of government work by watching the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on county attorneys. The speakers share how they became county-level government lawyers, the pros and cons of their practices, the variations in practice among different public law offices, and what a typical day in their practice entails. (Note: This is not for CLE. The recorded program and materials are exclusively for ABA members.)