The Role of a City Attorney

Every city attorney will tell you the same thing: "I cannot give legal advice to any individual."  This can be confusing and frustrating because citizens  pay taxes that support the city's budget and the city budget pays for the city attorney.  So why is it that the city attorney cannot advise citizens?

The answer to this question has everything to do with how legal representation works.  Attorneys can only represent their clients; it's unethical for an attorney to represent someone who is not a client.  The city attorney's client is the city as a corporate entity and not any individual.  

Think of it this way: if a customer purchased a tractor from the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company every year, that customer would certainly have paid money to support the company's budget and received a product in exchange.  However, that customer would not have the ability to ask the corporate attorney for Allis Chalmers for legal advice even though that customer frequently contributed toward the company budget.  That attorney only represents the interests of Allis Chalmers and would not become the attorney for every customer of the company.  It is a similar situation with city residents and city attorneys.

The taxpayers of a city are customers.  They pay money to a city and expect services like police protection, fire protection, and infrastructure maintenance.  The city, like any company, has legal matters to deal with.  That is why cities either hire or contract with attorneys; the city attorney is charged with handling all legal matters for the city.  Even though the city's customers (taxpayers) are contributing on a yearly basis to fund the city attorney's office, the attorney is employed by the city itself and not the city's customers.  For that reason, the city attorney's client is the city and not any private person.

That attorney works to ensure the city can continue to provide the services expected by all customers.  A city with good legal health certainly benefits all city residents.  Even though a city attorney does not directly advise any citizen as an individual, the city attorney is indirectly helping that citizen by working for the benefit of all citizens as a whole.