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After the Bar

Practice Areas & Settings

Starting a Small Municipality Legal Practice

Brittany Lee Hatting and Stephanie Elean Dassinger

Starting a Small Municipality Legal Practice

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In the rural communities where we practice, write-in candidates with fewer than five votes regularly win elections for the city council or the local park board. Often, residents of a small community each feel duty-bound to “take their turn” being mayor or on the city council. Many cities do not have many (or any) full-time staff and do not have an attorney that they can call for advice. Despite their size, these communities still are required to navigate a diverse and complicated set of legal matters, just as any larger community would. In the past, many of these communities were served by local, “main street” attorneys. With the number of attorneys practicing in rural areas dwindling, municipalities and other small political subdivisions often do not have or know of a competent attorney who they can call for advice. Given changing technology and client expectations, young attorneys interested in municipal law have a unique opportunity at this juncture to create lasting and symbiotic relationships with small political subdivisions that will provide the basis for a thriving legal practice.

Attorneys practicing municipal and government law have unique opportunities to serve not only the communities they live in but a broader range of communities across their region. Representing political subdivisions provides the opportunity to work in many different areas of law—government finance, contracts, real estate law, personnel/employment law, criminal law, in addition to the basics of government operation and the drafting of ordinances or resolutions. With advances in technology, municipal law practitioners are no longer limited by geography in providing services to local political subdivisions from hundreds or thousands of miles away. As a practical consideration, which is very important for attorneys just starting their careers, cities, townships, and other political entities are reliable clients that pay their bills on time.

If you are interested in working with small political subdivisions, consider the following advice.

Before You Begin Trying to Obtain Clients, Start with Yourself

Go to city council meetings. Attend committee meetings. Read up on city ordinances, resolutions, and procedures. Join the International Municipal Lawyers Association and attend their virtual New Government Lawyer Bootcamp, which provides a basic primer in the field. If your state publishes a model ordinance book, get a copy and read through it. You will not be doing a political subdivision any favors if you are not willing to learn the basics before reaching out. So much of serving local political subdivisions is learning and researching as you go. Still, it is crucial to provide substantial value for the fees incurred because many small government entities are working with minimal funds.

A Great Place to Start Is Your State’s League of Cities’ Organization

Staff and attorneys who are working with your state’s League of Cities’ organization often field questions from entities that could benefit significantly from the consistent presence and advice of competent legal counsel. Your local League of Cities’ staff likely knows and is familiar with the entities that are underserved and will be able to help you understand how to connect with those entities.

Start in Your Community and Work Outward

Become a familiar face in the community by patronizing local businesses, joining service organizations, and supporting local school districts. Client relationships often begin with a seemingly random meeting in the grocery store or at a Friday night high school football game with a quick question in passing. Becoming the attorney for one government entity often leads to exposure to others, as city staff and the elected talk to each other at conferences or in the community.

Utilize Virtual Communication Tools

One of the barriers we hear most often about from local political subdivisions is that they cannot afford to hire an attorney. The virtual communication tools we have all become accustomed to during the time of COVID-19 allow attorneys to be available to attend evening meetings or have quick conferences with cities without leaving your office. This cuts down on the time commitment for attorneys by removing the need for travel and reduces the cost of providing legal services to an underserved constituency.

Be Flexible and Creative in Fee Arrangements with Your Local Political Subdivisions

For example, an attorney can offer a rural city several hours at a slightly reduced hourly rate, which is included within the entity’s budget. Getting a line item into the budget for attorney advice allows those members of a governing body to feel more comfortable reaching out for help regularly, and hopefully before they inadvertently stumble into a significant and costly problem.

Keep in Contact

By having regular contact with the elected or staff, you will hopefully be able to increase their trust in your abilities and head more issues off at the pass with minimal expense.

Political-subdivisions law is growing more complex with every passing year (and legislative session). The guidance of a competent attorney is more important than ever for local political subdivisions. Rewarding and profitable work is out there for young lawyers in service to municipalities and other small political subdivisions if you are willing to be adaptable and innovative in finding ways to serve.

For more in-depth information on this topic, watch the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on local government attorneys. The speakers discuss what it’s like to work in local government and how they broke into their respective positions, the pros and cons, 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.