What Is a ‘Government Attorney’?

By Nicolette Fulton

When meeting a new person, the question I am most often asked after “What is your name?” is “What do you do?”  The answer to that question is not always simple. The simplest answer one can give is one’s title, “I am a/an _____,” filling in the blank with a range of positions, including:  City Attorney, County Attorney, Attorney General, General Counsel for (State Agency), or Clerk.

The first response I get is usually, “Is that like a DA?” or “What does that mean?” I explain that I am an attorney for the government, what our roles are, and “No, I am not a District Attorney.” When it comes to the public, and our colleagues, understanding what it means to be a member of the government and public sector is perplexing.  We are not defined by a practice area, but by our titles or roles (particularly for those in private practice). According to a recent Thomson Reuters survey, the average government attorney works on 32 different matters every week. Government Law Departments 2017, Thomson Reuters. This furthers the “jack of all trades” mentality that dominates many government attorneys. Id. While some do have specialty areas, a large percentage of government attorneys and those in the public sector do not have the specialization enjoyed by those in private practice. However, an alternate viewpoint could be that a government practice opens one to a breadth of knowledge not otherwise available.

The next response I usually get is, “You don’t look like a government attorney.” At which point, there is no continued explanation. There is no stock photograph to provide of the “government attorney.” The government attorney seated advocating for their client could be the well-aged gentleman in a seersucker suit with the coordinating tie and pocket square or the young female attorney in a dress and stiletto heels. Market briefings from 2014 reported that over half of the state and local government workforce across the country will be eligible for retirement by 2019. Id., citing 2014 Market Briefing, GOVERNING. However, as this population retires, a new generation of government attorneys is coming into their ranks.  Looking in the mirror, down the hall, or across the table at a G&PS meeting, I cannot answer the question of “What does a government attorney look like?” Our attorneys are diverse in age, gender, race, ethnicity, and in geographical location.

Regardless of our differences, we do have one commonality: to advocate for the best interest of our client, making our communities better for those we serve and the public.