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The Government Attorney as Public Administrator

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph G. Jarret
November 24, 2019

When students studying public administration first begin to learn about the profession, they’re generally told that the field of public administration focuses on the formation and management of public agencies. Their studies most commonly focus on issues such as supervision, public resources, accountability, human resources, budgeting, public welfare, bodies politic and the description, analysis, solutions and synthesis of contemporary management problems in public sector agencies. They hear terms like county manager, city manager, department director, agency head, etc. equated with the profession. What they seldom hear are terms like county attorney, law director, city attorney or chief legal counsel, associated with public administration. Students either presume or are taught that public sector attorneys are too busy embroiled in litigation, conducting legal research, imparting legal advice or drafting laws, ordinances, and resolutions to be bothered with pubic management and administration. This is an unfortunate misnomer. In fact, public sector attorneys are consistently called upon to perform a wide range of public management and administrative duties.

The Attorney as Public Administrator:

During the 30+ years I spent serving in the public sector, I was afforded the opportunity to serve three different public entities as chief legal counsel. As you can imagine, I was called upon to provide timely legal advice to bodies politic and the various department directors and managers; study, interpret and apply laws, decisions, rules of court and other authorities in preparation for cases; litigate a wide range of matters in federal & state court; draft and negotiate contacts and other legal documents and attend all public meetings, often serving as parliamentarian in the process. However, I was also required to supervise, train, lead and motivate a professional staff, prepare and defend a budget, and in one instance, contemporaneously serve as the county’s risk and insurance manager. For one large, urban county, I was likewise expected, among other things to:

  • Serve as a positive example to department heads and County personnel with regards to workplace actions, decisions, management skills, attitude and adherence to County policy.
  • Embody teamwork and cooperation within and across County departments and with the public.
  • Identify, define, evaluate and effectively resolve problems facing county officials, department heads, and employees; determine alternative courses of action and effectively recommend the most advantageous course of action by the officer, department head, or employee faced with the problem and proceed to assist in implementation of the solution.
  • Remain committed to innovation, creativity, service excellence and transforming the County through leading ideas and practices as well as serve as a key designer, promoter, motivator and catalyst for the alignment of culture with organizational values within the County’s departments.
  • Serve as the council’s liaison to members of the general public and the County’s federal & state legislative delegations.

It is important to note that the above duties and responsibilities were not unique to the positions I held. A review of job descriptions for public sector attorneys employed at the state and local level across the United States revealed the following functions essential to such positions:

  • Provide holistic services to the public by seeking ways to integrate programs or services provided by other departments, divisions, and agencies.
  • Work in partnership with other employees, departments/divisions, agencies and the public in delivering effective and innovative services.
  • Manage the recruitment of competent employees, setting expectations and providing necessary training for new employees; coaching and mentoring; assignment of work, evaluation of work product, initiating appropriate corrective or disciplinary action and developing and motivating incumbent staff in accordance with established policy.
  • Ensures citywide staff compliance with departmental policies and procedures.
  • Maintain harmony among all county employees, elected and appointed officials. Resolve grievances and assist supervisory staff in the performance of their duties.
  • Monitor and evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery methods and procedures. Provide recommendations to city council appropriate service and staffing levels.
  • Manage and participate in the development and implementation of goals, objective policies and priorities for assigned programs countywide; recommend and administer policies and procedures designed to improve service delivery to the general citizenry.


The days of the public sector attorney being limited to litigation, imparting legal advice and preparing legal documents are but a memory. The fact that many law schools routinely offer joint JD/MPA programs is telling indeed. Today’s aspiring public sector attorney is well-advised to take as many courses in public administration, management and policy as possible. Such a well-rounded, holistic approach toward providing timely legal, administrative and management advice to bodies politic and the citizens they serve will make for good government that benefits all.

Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney, and mediator who lectures full-time on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a former United States Army Combat Arms Officer with service overseas and is the 2013-14 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA, and a former PATimes columnist who holds the B.S., MPA and J.D. degrees and is currently a candidate for the Ph.D. in educational leadership & policy studies at the University of Tennessee.

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