How to Become a California Municipal Lawyer

How does one become a municipal attorney in California?  There are a variety of paths to doing so.  Municipal Law has its niches, but it also has one of the broadest practices possible.  As the City Attorney of a City, you are expected to be a generalist.  You have to know a little of everything.  As a subordinate to the City Attorney, you can also be a generalist, but typically, you focus on one or a few areas of the law.
Municipal lawyers can be employed in-house in a City Attorney’s Office, or work for a municipal law firm or be a sole practitioner.
You do not necessarily have to work for a City Attorney’s Office or a municipal law firm as a law student.  However, from personal experience, it helps you see what a City does on a day-to-day basis.  I worked as a clerk in the City of Santa Clara’s City Attorney’s Office in the summer after my first year at Santa Clara University School of Law.  I filed papers in Santa Clara Superior Court and did other office tasks.  At the City Attorney’s Office in Redlands, I supervised a few interns from La Verne.  I helped supervise an intern as a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino.  She was a certified law student and she tried one of my infraction cases as a 3rd year law student.  I would recommend that program to anyone interested in trial work.
That program is formally called the Practical Training of Law Students.  I did not do it when I was a law student as I was preparing to become a transactional intellectual property attorney.  Instead, I interned at an educational software company in the Silicon Valley.  That served me well with both my current small business clients and with my municipal law clients.   Cities have large appetites for contracts.  Certain clauses work for any client: attorneys’ fees clauses, choice of law and venue, indemnification clauses, insurance requirements and other similar clauses.  A city in California is a municipal corporation.  It has many of the same needs as any large business.
Is there a particular course of study required to become a municipal lawyer?  Not that I have ever seen.  I know of no municipal law certificate or other such program, and a very cursory search found no such certificate in California.  However, the traditional first year courses are very helpful year after year: Real Property, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Contracts, Torts, and Legal Research and Writing.    Constitutional Law is very useful.
You never know what kind of law you might be doing for a City, particularly if you are a Deputy City Attorney for a medium or large city.  As a Deputy City Attorney and an Assistant City Attorney, I dealt with the following diverse set of circumstances: set and try a Vickers hearing; fight a pro se attorney in Federal court spouting constitutionalist nonsense; attempt to get a deputy public defender disqualified because their spouse once prosecuted their client; get a Superior Court clerk to file an answer and a demurrer at the same time (the Code of Civil Procedure allows it, but it is not seen in nature often), convince a municipal client to get a blanket performance license; write a state assembly bill that united both the disabled and slumlords in opposition; attempt to get a restraining order against a man threatening a code enforcement officer; obtain orders to destroy firearms, defend Pitchess Motions, write agreements to transfer property purchased with Federal funds to a non-profit, help lobbyists organize public meetings in Washington D.C., brief the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, create a process to protest County tax sales, and more than I can possibly remember.  That’s not even the bread-and-butter of municipal law.
The bread-and-butter is advising commissions, boards, and the council, municipal code prosecutions, defending cities in civil cases, advising departments and staff.  Some of it can be exciting; some is very, very dry.  As I said, some people specialize, especially in very large offices or firms.  You can be municipal bond counsel, a public works attorney, a redevelopment attorney, land use attorney, or a city prosecutor.
So how do you become a California Municipal Lawyer?  Some start out of law school, some come in after long careers elsewhere.  A good municipal attorney is a good attorney.  A good attorney can pick up the specifics on the job.  There are many paths, but to me, public law gives an attorney so many options.  If you are interested in municipal law, feel free to contact me.
The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog.  You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.
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