Government Job Profile: City Attorney

attorney looking at paperwork on desk
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A city attorney advises a municipal government’s leadership on legal matters that may impact the city. A city attorney must be well-versed in state law governing the creation and operation of municipal governments. Additionally, a city attorney must know human resources, open meetings, open records, contracts, tax and criminal law. Since city attorneys must give advice on a wide range of legal topics, they should be skilled in legal research and communicate complex information in understandable ways.

Depending on the city’s form of government, the city attorney may report to the mayor, city council or the city manager. In the strong mayor form of government, the city attorney often reports to the mayor. The city attorney may report to the city council or the city manager in the council-manager form of government. The reporting structure of the city attorney is always explicitly or implicitly addressed in the city’s founding document which is usually called the city charter.

The Selection Process

The selection process for a city attorney largely depends on the city and where the city attorney position fits into the organization. When the city attorney is a full-time city employee, a city will often use an executive search firm, also called headhunters, to refine the list of applicants to a smaller list of finalists. The headhunting firm may also assist city leaders in the final selection.

The selection process for a city attorney often consists of background checks, reference checks, and interviews. A city will conduct the background and reference checks before they contact candidates for interviews.

When interviewing for a city attorney position, a finalist should prepare for questions about the role of a city attorney, how the candidate communicates with clients and what experience the candidate has in dealing with municipal legal issues.

The Education You'll Need

City attorneys must hold a doctoral degree in law. They must also be licensed to practice law in the state where the city is located.

The Experience You Need

City attorneys must hold a doctoral degree in law. They must also be licensed to practice law in the state where the city is located.

What You'll Do

A city attorney functions as the city’s legal counsel in a manner similar to how any other attorney would counsel his or her clients. Larger cities have legal departments that a city attorney directs. Smaller cities have one city attorney on staff or contract with a law firm specializing in municipal law. Some law firms do all their business representing governmental entities such as cities, counties and school districts.

When changes in city law are before a city council, the city attorney advises the council members on the legal issues surrounding the change. The city attorney’s advice may include opinions about whether the changes are good policy, but the most important pieces are whether the changes are permissible under state and federal law and whether the city is exposing itself to legal risk by making the changes.

The city attorney stays informed on changes to state and federal laws that impact the city. The city attorney informs the appropriate elected officials and city staff as these laws are being debated in the state legislature or Congress.

The city attorney reviews all contracts and memoranda of understanding to ensure that the city’s legal interests are not compromised. In these matters, the city attorney tries to prevent surprises for the city leadership.

To mitigate the likelihood of a lawsuit by a former city employee, departments heads often involve the city attorney in personnel actions. The city attorney can help department heads ensure they document personnel issues so that the documentation will stand up to legal scrutiny should the problem employee sue the city after termination.

What You'll Earn

Government attorneys typically make less than private sector attorneys. Government attorneys forego large salary checks and bonuses but get stable employment and a 40-hour work week in return.

A city attorney can expect to make slightly less than what a city manager makes. As with city managers, a city attorney’s salary is highly correlated to the size of the city. When interviewing for a city attorney position, look at the salaries of the current city manager, former city attorney, and city department heads to prepare yourself for salary negotiations.