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A life preserver for the municipal attorney

Local government attorneys face an ocean of legal issues – are you prepared?

Cathy Cunningham

Most citizens think of the municipal attorney (if they think of them at all) as the expert in whatever question they have for the city. Do they need information? The municipal attorney is the public records expert. Questions about a building permit? The municipal attorney is the expert in the building, electrical, plumbing, and other codes. Are they trying to develop property? The municipal attorney is the expert in land development and zoning. Or perhaps the question involves a council member's ability to vote on an item when the member has some other personal or financial interest? The council member is the expert on conflicts of interest.

A complete list of knowledge needed by a municipal attorney might stretch on for days, but it could include code enforcement, telecommunications, electric, gas, and right-of-way issues, city charter amendments, copyright and trademark issues, finance, litigation, ordinance writing and interpretation, real estate transactions, donations, appearances before federal and state legislative bodies, open meetings laws, transportation issues, sign questions, and so much more.

And that may all be on the same day.

A lot of city attorneys start in entry-level positions, and many are surprised at the depth and breadth of questions coming from citizens, council members, department heads, staff members, police officers, code enforcement officials, board members, state representatives, and others. Usually, once new city attorneys know what they are doing in their first position, they move to something new. The zoning expert retires, and suddenly, you are the new zoning attorney. The city attorney is hospitalized during the budget retreat, and you need to know the answer to budgeting questions.

It is a big ocean of legal issues facing local government attorneys, and we all need a lifeline at some point. An expert in zoning issues may not be able to tell the Planning and Zoning Commission or City Council what the effect of the most recent FCC ruling will be on the aesthetics of the right-of-way for the major new development currently in the works. Someone who works with code enforcement may be lost when called upon to answer a finance question. When we depend upon one of our attorney co-workers or friends to be that lifeline, they may be able to help in the area they work in, but not for everything. And when a citizen, staff member, or council member asks an unexpected question during a meeting, there is no time to reach for out to another attorney.

Practical Law is not just a lifeline for one issue; it is the life preserver a local government attorney can have at any time for multiple issues. If you have a few minutes before a meeting, or sometimes even during a meeting, Practical Law can provide an answer to the surprise question.

When I first began working as a municipal attorney, I prosecuted in municipal court and collected delinquent taxes. Later I worked on zoning, public records, attended public meetings, answered copyright and trademark questions, wrote ordinances, dealt with ethics questions, and worked on many other issues. Suddenly, the buildout of fiber optic hit my city (due to its location) harder than most other cities, at the same time that telecommunications laws were changing. I wrote one of the first comprehensive right-of-way management ordinances and was asked to speak all over the country on the topic. Right-of-way and utility issues became a major focus for me, and I spent a lot of time on those topics. Then I took another job, and suddenly I was doing everything I used to do and more, and I was spending more time on a variety of issues, not just right-of-way.

When I was first exposed to Practical Law, I was delighted with the huge body of wisdom available, and so strongly wished that it had been available to me much sooner. I thought of all the documents I had created from scratch, the hours and hours I’d spent in my office, and the frustration when an answer was hard to find – all of which could have been helped with access to Practical Law.

Practical Law content is complicated content that is written in an easy to understand way. It is precise and above all, practical. It answers your questions. It gets you straight to the law you need and explains how that law works.

When I talked about why I wanted to be a part of Practical Law, my honest answer was that I wanted to help other local government practitioners like myself. That is what Practical Law does – it gives answers and confidence to the local government attorney. It provides the attorney with answers and solutions and in less time and with more certainty.

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