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After the Bar

Practice Areas & Settings

Why You Should Consider a Career as a City Attorney

Megan Elise Griffith

Why You Should Consider a Career as a City Attorney Lorenzo Ferretti Photography

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When thinking about potential legal careers in the public sector, the city attorney’s office is not the first to come to mind. We usually think of public defenders, prosecutors, attorneys general, and other elected officials. While the position of city attorney is not highly glamorized like other public sector roles, it is one of the most important. The following are four reasons young lawyers should consider a career as a city attorney.

Shaping Local Community

The city attorney’s office makes decisions on the local level (public safety, taxation, housing, transportation, land use, etc.) that dramatically affect how and where people choose to live. Not only do these decisions have a significant impact on the quality of life in a community, but it is also who these decisions are affecting that truly matters. The people experiencing the direct and immediate results from your work are your neighbors, friends, and family.

Those in local government genuinely have their fingers on the pulse of their communities. They can respond quickly, efficiently, and in a way that contemplates the uniqueness of their people and spaces. Advising city officials on legal issues affecting your community is gratifying personally and professionally.

Variety of Work

One of the best reasons to work in local government, especially as a young attorney, is for the breadth of practice areas to which you are exposed. You instantly gain a working knowledge of multiple areas of the law. Within the early years of your practice, you could work on high-dollar real estate transactions, tax assessment and collection, land use, code enforcement, civil litigation, employment law matters, civil rights defense, parliamentary procedure, and general municipal governance. One day you may be defending a police officer in a use of force case, and the next, you may be reviewing a construction contract for a multimillion-dollar capital project. The variety not only makes you a well-rounded attorney; it also fights off monotony and boredom.

Immediate Responsibility

Due to the steady work and constrained public service budgets, you will receive an incredible amount of responsibility and autonomy out of the gate. It is common for new attorneys to be assigned their own cases, clients, and projects on day one. This level of ownership of a matter is usually reserved for senior associates and partners in a traditional law firm setting.

The “bottom-up” decision-making is unique in the legal world. In local government, decisions are largely left to the attorney, with potential review from a superior. While it can be intimidating to be the decision maker on a case, it not only sharpens your skills but also builds your confidence—a challenge for any young attorney.

Tangible Results

Working as a city attorney allows you to see the direct and tangible results of your work product. For example, when working on capital improvement projects, you will see an idea make its way through the planning and design process and be implemented. While this length of time differs on individual projects, being involved at every stage of execution is unique for lawyers. Driving past a building in which you watch negotiations occur, bids submitted, contractors selected, licensing issued, and construction completed gives you an incredible sense of pride in your work and your community.

It is easy for new attorneys to feel like they must go to Big Law to work on big issues. However, there is arguably no more significant issue than protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the people with whom you live, work, and play. The best example of this responsibility is the local governments’ role in responding to the novel COVID-19 virus. The need for immediate action to protect both citizens, and the economy, were largely left in the laps of local officials. These decisions were largely without precedent and of monumental impact. 

Get a peek into this exciting world of government work by watching 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.