While large Texas cities employ a city attorney who has a full-time staff, many smaller cities have just one attorney on staff to handle their legal needs. Some of the smaller cities use a combination of staff and outside counsel, while others use outside counsel exclusively.
In some cases, smaller cities simply don’t have enough legal work to justify having a full-time attorney on staff and in other situations, the city prefers to have a relationship with a law firm that has multiple attorneys who specialize in different areas, including civil service law, government ethics, regulatory matters, labor negotiations and litigation.
Role and responsibilities
Whether the smaller city has a city attorney, a combination of a staff attorney and outside counsel, or prefers to use outside counsel exclusively, the role and responsibilities are the same, says Texas Town & City: advise elected officials and staff on legal matters; keep elected officials up to date on developments in law and legislation; attend council meetings; and if necessary, participate in litigation.
The publication stresses that on litigation matters, city staff and elected officials should work together closely with either the city attorney or outside counsel.
It’s noted that some smaller Texas cities will have their staff attorney take care of city code enforcement, but in complex litigation matters turn to outside litigation counsel.
It’s important for city employees to remember that outside counsel will need to do the same types of things a city attorney needs to do: gather information from elected officials and staff, participate in discovery, advise staff and council on strategy, etc.
Texas Town & City also urges staff and elected officials to give city attorneys and outside counsel “plenty of lead time.” They’re likely to have a full plate of projects, meetings and more, so they might not be able to immediately respond to questions and requests.
So it’s “to your benefit to communicate your needs and your deadline clearly.”
Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that the attorney represents the city, not an individual elected official or staffer. The lawyer’s advice is intended to protect their client, which is the city.