Why an In-House Public Lawyer Should Stay Out of Politics and Not Express Their Opinion if They Are Not Asked

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

Some attorneys are very political.  They donate to local, state and federal candidates.  They hold fundraisers at their multi-million dollar houses (yes, even in the Inland Empire). Sometimes they are very associated with one political party or another.  Some become local officials.  I have no idea if this is beneficial or detrimental  for their practices, firms, well-being, or pocket book.

Public lawyers, and by public lawyers I mean in-house civil attorneys, typically in an in-house City Attorney’s Office or Office of County Counsel, may have opinions but it is usually best if they do not openly express them.  The entity, of course, is the client, but an entity is run by actual human beings.

As long time readers know, I was the Assistant City Attorney of the City of Redlands and a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino, each for over four years, for a total of almost nine and a half years.   The environment in each office was different.  In Redlands, it was (then) a two person operation, which, for the size, workload and complexity of the organization, could have accommodated three attorneys.  The City Attorney was and is appointed by the City Council.  A majority of a Council quorum can remove the City Attorney, subject to the City Attorney’s agreement with the Council.  That is a different kind of political environment from the City of San Bernardino.

The City of San Bernardino, with an elected City Attorney, elections every two years, with charter fights, was a Politically-charged entity.  By “Politically,” with a capital P,  I mean municipal election politics.  While the employees of that office felt the secondary effects of the political winds, I was always allowed to do my job.  Certainly, when someone aims for the elected City Attorney, sometimes they hit a deputy.  But for the most part, the Mayor and Common Council, and the staff of the City viewed me, as a Deputy, as a non-c0mbatant.  Humorously, they sometimes treated me as if I were a victim of an evil regime.

People sometimes interpreted, when I was a prosecutor, that I was personally prosecuting people because I was a supporter of whatever ordinance I was prosecuting.   No, I was doing my duty to enforce the rules made by the policy makers.  If there was a problem with a particular rule, a political solution needed to be forged to change the rule.  That political solution was not one that I, as a Deputy City Attorney or the Assistant City Attorney, was going to be a part of, unless I was directed to draft an ordinance by the City Attorney.

Obviously, a wise public lawyer has to fit into the inter-office politics in the in-house environment.   That’s not what I am talking about, and that’s the same in any office with more than one person.  The public lawyer must be political in that sense.

Similarly, as an independent attorney, I do not hold any particular positions on the subjects that I write about.  Even if I am recounting my past actions, I did the things I did because it was my job to do them, because they benefited my public entity client, and it was at the direction of the political decision-makers of the entity.   I was never asked to do anything that was unethical, and even if I were asked to do something unethical, I would not do it.  However, very seldom does the public entity practitioner reach the bounds of the California Rules of Professional Conduct.

For example, someone thought I had a position on allowing Food Trucks in San Bernardino County.  I do not have a personal opinion on the subject.  If a small business retains me to represent them on the subject, my opinion is the same as the client.  I give advice in a neutral fashion, the pluses and minuses of any particular situation.  However, the best interest of the client must be kept in mind at all times.

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.

Copyright 2011 Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

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