What does a municipal attorney do, anyway?

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Working as a municipal attorney makes Parks & Rec just that much funnier… because it’s so true.

I don’t write much about my work on this blog, but I thought it might be fun to share a different side of myself with this post that I wrote for the my alma mater’s law school career center blog.  It’s geared towards law students who are trying to decide what type of legal career they would like to pursue, but I think anyone considering a career in law or just curious about what a government attorney does might find it interesting.  I realize I’ve described, um… 0% of my readers, so — enjoy?

When I was interviewing for jobs during law school, I included the Missouri attorney general on my list of potential future employers, more for the ability to stay in mid-Missouri than any real interest in governmental law practice. Eventually I took a job with a small firm in Springfield, Missouri and began the typical associate attorney’s work of research, writing memos, drafting motions, and occasionally going to court on small matters. After about three years, I realized that although I enjoyed legal work, I wasn’t happy with the billable hours requirements and started to look for a job that allowed me to stay in the legal field with a slightly less demanding work schedule.

At the law firm, I had worked with a few governmental-entity clients, such as small hospitals and rural fire protection districts, that typically don’t have in-house counsel. During these projects, I learned a little bit about working for a government as a client, and I enjoyed the variety of legal questions and learning about the constitutional issues and other unique rules, like the Sunshine Law, that apply to governments. So when I saw a job posting for a litigation attorney position with the City of Springfield (where I already lived), I was intrigued. I applied for the job even though I barely met the experience requirements. I was called in for an interview, but I was ultimately passed over for someone with more experience. A few months later, though, I got a call asking if I would be interested in another attorney position at the City, representing the Airport. I met with the Airport Director and decided to take a chance on it, even though I had no clue what I was getting into as far as “Airport Law” was concerned (if there even was such a thing?!)

The airport was a great place to get a crash course in municipal law, because it’s like a little city unto itself — it has a police department, fire department, slip & fall claims, federal grant agreements, leases, HR issues with a wide variety of employees (from accountants to airfield maintenance workers), and it’s run by an administrative board (like a mini-City Council). While working at the Airport, I handled many interesting legal issues, including some major construction disputes related to the construction of a new airport terminal. (I am now the law department’s go-to person for prevailing wage questions, whether I like it or not!) Later on, I transferred office locations to City Hall and I’ve had to opportunity to represent the Public Works department, Health department, Information Systems department, and apparently I am finally qualified to handle litigation, since I started that assignment in the summer of 2013.

There are many reasons I enjoy working for municipal government — no billable hours! — but my favorite part is the variety of work, opportunities for learning many different subject areas without having to change jobs, the diversity of “clients” we represent (from airport to zoo and everything in between), and the novel legal issues that we get to work on. There are more opportunities for in-house governmental practice than I realized when I was a law student, so I would encourage you to seek out internships in that area or to speak with someone who works as an in-house government attorney if you think you might like to work in this area of the law.

This post first appeared on Mizzou Law Career Café on January 31, 2014.

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52 thoughts on “What does a municipal attorney do, anyway?

  1. I always love reading about what people do and what their work lives are like…it’s what I do. I have actually gotten a few questions on the blog about my degree and what I do. As soon as I figure it out, I will write about it 🙂
    Tara Newman recently posted…Hitting ResetMy Profile

    • Prevailing wage is the rate of pay that public bodies (like a city, state, library district, etc) have to ensure that workers are paid for public works construction. In Missouri, it’s set by state statute and if the contractor doesn’t pay it to his workers, he can get hit with big penalties in addition to having to pay the wage itself.

    • Thank you! It really wasn’t a big deal — they would probably take any guest posts they could get. A lot of lawyers don’t really understand the “blog thing.” =) But I have set myself a goal of one guest post per month, so this made for an easy one. (Once I sat down and made myself write it! I had it in drafts for MONTHS.)

    • You’re welcome! And it’s definitely true, I certainly never dreamed while I was in law school that I would ever work for an airport (or even a city, for that matter!)

  2. I am a civil engineer and have spent most of my career working for local government and what you say is so true – it makes Parks and Rec so much funnier! I have worked closely with the attorneys at all my jobs and they have kept me out of trouble so many times!!

    • Ugh is right. I don’t think I could have handled working for a big airport! I met some attorneys from the Denver Airport at a conference once, and they were so specialized, it was crazy. Like one guy did nothing but make sure all the airlines, car rental companies, etc. had the right insurance coverage. I would diiiiiiiie of boredom.

    • I know what you mean. I was really glad to get out of it, and that was before the whole economic disaster of 2008 and beyond. Good luck! Federal jobs have great benefits.

    • Law school is a really big expense if he’s not 100% sure about it — I would definitely encourage him to seek out job shadowing opportunities or even try to get a job working in various legal settings. Even if he’s just filing or making copies, he will get a sense of the place and what life as a lawyer in that setting is like.
      Sarah recently posted…What does a municipal attorney do, anyway?My Profile

  3. I took one full semester of law school and loved it. When I first started I thought it was going to be Criminal Law that was the most interesting to me, but Contract Law was the one that really grabbed my interest.

    My husband asked me to quit law school after finals. I cried. And I quit. The only thing he’s ever asked me not to do… it was just too much time on my studies and he felt lost. I was surprised, mortified too, lol, but life goes on, and if all goes well I’ll have a shiny new PhD to hang on my wall at the end of the summer. 🙂

    I’m really going on, aren’t I? 🙂 How fun that you got to write for your alma mater! It’s nice that you shared it with your readers!!

    #SITSBlogging
    Rosey recently posted…Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • Wow, a PhD! Not too shabby! =) Law school is pretty intense, so I see where he was coming from. Sounds like it’s all working out for the best in the end. Thanks for visiting, Rosey!

  4. I found the post interesting! It’s always nice to get to know a blogger more deeply, especially us “family bloggers” since a lot of our posts focus around our family and not US particularly. Anywho, what a great journey into finding and doing something that you like and also works with your lifestyle. I am so glad to have landed a research position at a government agency because it’s pretty stable (baring govt shutdown, boo!), we don’t make policies around here so it’s not political, and it’s pretty steady 8-5 hours. You have great advice to these trying to decide on a legal career – definitely have to get your feet wet in different jobs before knowing exactly what you want.

    • You’re right, I had no idea what you did for a living! I’m glad I found the niche within law that I did, otherwise I think I might have left the profession altogether.

  5. Stopping by for #SITSblogging, and of course its fate that I found your amazing blog!! I love this post. In September of 2014 I will be starting my first year of law school. I love hearing and reading about any and all experiences as I start my journey into the field of law. Thank you for sharing!!

  6. I am interested in people’s career choices also. I’ve done a few “career” interview posts on my blog and they are a lot of fun. I enjoyed reading why you like your job – I worked it accounting for a company that was billable. It takes a special personality to do that – unless you like to bill your unbillable time to a project.

    I love your blog. You have a wide variety of interests. Will be stopping back in.
    Savvy Working Gal recently posted…The Professional Woman’s Guide to Managing Men Book Review and GiveawayMy Profile

  7. As a former attorney in the corporate realm, I enjoyed reading about your experiences as a municipal attorney. More and more, I hear about attorneys who are so disgruntled regarding their legal career and are choosing to leave. It was refreshing to listen to your perspective and learn that people can be happy practicing law.
    Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri recently posted…We Cover Up Who We AreMy Profile

    • Yes, it’s a hard career to stay in long-term, I think. There just doesn’t seem to be any recognition in the big firm universe that people have lives outside of work. I am so happy that I found the job that I have now — I don’t know if I could ever go back to private practice! I didn’t realize you were a “recovering attorney”! What do you do now?

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