Municipal Attorneys: What We Do and Why We Do It

By: Kelly Butler, City Attorney, Madison, Alabama*

This article originally ran in the May/June 2015 issue of The Alabama Municipal Journal and is reprinted with permission. Original artwork by Karl Franklin.

Who Does This?  

Municipal Attorney Article_Illustration

Somewhere between law school graduation and the date of this writing, I became a municipal lawyer. I don’t think I really meant to do it, but here I am just the same. I’d lay money that most municipal attorneys didn’t hit the doors as a first year law student aiming to set the legal world on fire by sitting behind our computers writing and writing and writing until carpal tunnel surgery is the only way to stop small children from shrieking at the sight of our claw-like hands. And I’m pretty sure we didn’t take Conflict of Laws so that we could settle political squabbles which are really better suited for the playground or a Jell-o pit. But somehow, someway, at some point, municipal law found me just like it found many others . . . and we just couldn’t let it go. Maybe it provided a measure of stability to an otherwise unstable bottom line in a solo practice. Or maybe a box of files greeted us at the door on our first day as a BigLaw associate, said box handed over by a giggling partner who we’d swear skipped a little as he made his hasty retreat from our supply closet cozy office.

Or maybe we had an opportunity fall in our lap at the right point in our career and managed, amazingly, to not screw it up.

I realized pretty quickly what every other municipal lawyer already knew: that we are the red-headed stepchildren of the legal world. Our little part of the profession accounts for a tiny-point-tiny percent of the country’s lawyers and, for the most part, we get treated like even less. If you really look at us, though, we are an interesting microcosm of the larger Bar, sort of like the adult males left to fend for themselves on the Titanic. We come from all walks of life, a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and varied cultures, but none of that matters when we go looking for help. Generally, we are left to fend for ourselves. I think that’s why we have such unique personalities in the practice of municipal law – we have to be strong (or weird) enough to be okay with watching everybody else get the lifeboats while we’re clinging to the random timber that floats by in the dark. (Shout out to the state municipal leagues for being the biggest and strongest timber we could ever ask for, by the way.)

What Do We Do? Seriously….

When I clerked for my judge, and later when I was in private practice, I didn’t need to say much to explain my job to High-School-Classmate-I-Haven’t-Seen-in-Years: “I work for a judge” seemed to sufficiently explain my work and impress those who wondered what I’d been up to since I ran screaming from graduation. Later, during the years of private practice, I found I had to expound a little to help others understand my career choice: “I own a small boutique firm (I have an office that looks really cool but I haven’t paid myself in four months) where I specialize in a wide range of business-related transactions (I write boring documents that would make your brain melt and I also clean the toilets) and represent a select list of high-profile defendants (most of my clients are career losers selected for me by the presiding judge from the tall stack of indigent defense requests) and private clients who pay top dollar to have me on their side (I once got paid with a deep-fried turkey … and it was delicious).”

Since February 6, 2001, though, the answer has been way more difficult to give. I get the “what do you do” question quite often from non-lawyer friends and family and, more often than I find comfortable, from fellow municipal employees and elected officials. Fourteen years as a municipal lawyer and I still don’t have a good answer. And by “good answer,” I mean an answer that makes me sound really cool, because, let’s face it, the truth is pretty boring. I mean, come on … I write ordinances and resolutions and legislation and contracts and leases and deeds and bid documents and all kinds of stuff that nobody – and I do mean NOBODY – else cares about until they get a question from a reporter or a subpoena from the sheriff. And the rest of what I do from day to day – which is especially true for those of us who are in-house (read: easily accessible and not on a clock) – is akin to being an ER doctor. One of the ways I describe my department is that it’s like a triage ward – we treat ‘em and street ‘em and get our people back to work as quickly as possible, hopefully healed and now armed with better information than they had when they got to us.

Usually, though, the most accurate descriptions of what I do are in terms nobody else understands (“I spent all day drafting a revamp of our SOPs for street cuts and a revision of our SOGs for processing trench failure complaints”) and in terms nobody wants to hear (“Let me break down WHY we shouldn’t enter into this 91-page agreement for a multi-million dollar deal without reading it first”). However, because we are all drifting in this icy municipal water together, I offer 15 painfully accurate, bite-size, somewhat dignified answers about my beloved legal niche, each suitable for dinner parties and family gatherings when the inevitable, “So what DO you do?” comes up:

  1. I read. A lot.
  2. I write. A lot more.
  3. I talk on the phone, but only when threatened with physical harm.
  4. I receive 1.2 million e-mails every day and have time to answer four of them.
  5. I answer lots of questions from people in my doorway who wonder if I have a minute and then leave an hour later.
  6. I counsel and console.
  7. I reprimand and admonish.
  8. I advise (and get ignored).
  9. I advise again (and get ignored again).
  10. I try to convince co-workers that I truly don’t remember anything about divorce law.
  11. I hand out a lot of phone numbers for lawyers that do divorces.
  12. I get ignored some more.
  13. I pick my battles and refuse to be ignored when it really matters.
  14. I protect my city’s representatives to the extent they are watching out for its best interests.
  15. I protect my faceless client like a fat kid covers the last piece of cake.

Okay. But Why?

I suppose, if I’m completely honest with myself, I like being part of something as critically important as local government. We’re never going to be wealthy lawyers by the world’s standards and most of us are never going to be legendary legal gods, two things that, I sheepishly confess, bothered me the first few years of my municipal career. I guess it’s true, though, that with age comes wisdom and I have left those concerns further and further behind me as I’ve become more and more aware of the direct impact local government has on the quality of life for the people around me.

I have to say, though, that my “why” recently has become clearer. When I began writing this article, things were rolling along as usual: too much to do and not enough time to do it, but it all was general, garden-variety municipal work. And then, in a moment, everything changed and attention shifted to matters larger and more intense than I could have ever imagined.

The details of my Moment aren’t important because, for each municipal attorney, there has been or will be a Moment that defines our “why.” A Moment may be the result of a natural disaster ravaging our city or a school shooting or a bad decision or a political scandal or one of the billion other things completely outside of the individual, direct control of a city attorney. Trust me: the genesis doesn’t matter when we define our “why.” Nothing matters as we realize that our presence as legal counsel for our city right then, in that Moment, matters more than anything else we’ve done in our career and, instinctively, we know that it will greatly matter in all of the hours and days and weeks and months to follow. Our presence, our help, our mind, our experience will make a difference for our city and its people and we suddenly realize why we do this. It’s because protecting this faceless client is as much a part of who we are as the color of our eyes and we know that this is why we were put on this spinning terrarium – to protect and serve and defend in this Moment and in all the little “m” moments to follow.

Municipal attorneys were put here to pick up these pieces and help our city put itself back together. We are here to handle the Moment and the moments, counsel shaken employees who are suddenly willing to listen, and send them back to the comfort of their daily work with the confidence and knowledge that, whatever the problem might be, it is now safely in our hands.

We do it because that’s who we are. It’s who we were made to be.

And after everyone else has moved past the Moment, we will continue to deal with it and its consequences and its mind-numbing minutiae that nobody else will ever see. But we see it, live it, breathe it, lose sleep because of it . . . because we’re still there, camped out in the Moment long after it’s over.

That’s just what we do.

In fact, we’ve been critically deep in the Moment from the time it happened and we know we’ll stay in it until the file is finally closed and stored away. We’ll do that for the employees and the electeds and the department heads so they can return to the important work they do for our city and for its citizens. We’ll handle the Moment and still manage the zillion other issues that won’t stop coming just because we’ve had our Moment. We’ll keep going because our city and its operation under the unique laws that govern its ultimate success or failure is in our hands. We’ll stay in that Moment for as long as it takes because municipal law found us and we couldn’t let it go and now it’s who we are. It’s what we proudly do even if it seems nobody will ever understand that municipal attorneys float on the random timbers to keep our clients in the lifeboats.

We take on the icy municipal waters so our clients don’t drown. It’s what we do because that’s just who we are.

*A 1996 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law, Kelly is a soon-to-be-middle-aged municipal attorney who spends most of her time wishing death to the city phone system and e-mail server. During lucid moments, she is the City Attorney for the City of Madison, Alabama, and manages a department of a whopping five employees (counting her) who are the hardest-working team in the business (most of the time counting her). When not in the office or with her face in her phone checking e-mail, she enjoys spending 37.8 minutes a week with her firefighter-husband and trying to buy the love of her eight-year-old daughter due to a severe case of Working Mommy Guilt. She is also the current Vice President of the Alabama Association of Municipal Attorneys and loves speaking at AAMA seminars and conferences when they have run out of options and nobody else is available.