Five reasons why a local government may want to use a law firm for its general counsel function
By Alan Zimmet
For some smaller cities and counties, hiring full-time, in-house legal staff may not be a viable option financially. And even for local governments that do have in-house legal staff, special projects or circumstances may arise that require special legal expertise or manpower. So in many cases, outsourcing some or even all of the general counsel function to an outside law firm may be the best solution.
To be sure, there are some situations where outside help may not be needed except on a special case basis. For example, a municipality’s legal needs may be sufficient to justify the cost for an in-house legal staff that can handle the day-to-day work. But here are five major reasons why a local government might benefit from using a law firm to perform all or part of its general counsel function.
Reason #1: In many cases, it can be less expensive to use an outside law firm than to hire in-house staff.
Traditionally, the most expensive part of a government entity’s operations is its employees. Between salaries, benefits, payroll taxes, unemployment taxes and training, employee expenses easily surpass any other operational expense, which is why outsourcing the legal function could be more economical for many local governments.
Reason #2: Using a law firm instead of or in addition to in-house counsel gives local governments access to lawyers with a wide range of expertise, such as real estate law, labor law, and tax law.
For some local governments, teaming a lesser-experienced attorney on staff with a more experienced, private local government attorney offers the best of both worlds. The local government has an attorney available on site to handle the day-to-day legal needs, while the more experienced attorney is available to guide the on-staff attorney and provide his or her local government expertise to management staff and the governing body. The local government also has access to the expertise of the law firm’s other attorneys in subject matters that local governments need on occasion, such as real estate, labor and tax law.
Reason #3: If a local government only has one attorney, there is no backup should that person become sick or take personal leave.
When using a law firm for supplemental help, a local government not only has its dedicated attorney to represent the client, but also has its legal and administrative staff as backup on a daily basis. In instances when one attorney is unable to attend to a specific issue or attend a meeting, there are backup attorneys that can effectively and efficiently serve the local government’s needs.
This means that in most instances, your legal needs will be met regardless of when the needs arise. Even for in-house attorneys, having a law firm available through a contract for general counsel services on an as-needed basis, allows the local government to access the firm’s resources whenever necessary, easily and quickly.
Reason #4: Longevity – Smaller local governments that choose to hire in-house legal counsel often find themselves facing high turnover.
By working with an outside law firm, local governments can work with senior-level attorneys who are committed to working with the local government on a long-term basis. These cities benefit from a lawyer’s institutional knowledge gained over many years of practice and expertise – knowledge that a new or less-experienced lawyer would not have. In most instances, smaller cities can only afford to hire in-house lawyers at a lower salary. Many lawyers willing to work for these rates either have relatively little experience, or are looking to move on to larger, higher-paying positions in a few short years. This cycle happens again and again in local government. It can be costly and unpredictable. Working with an outside law firm allows a city or county to call on lawyers with many years of experience and historical knowledge of the issues they face, and avoid turnover.
Reason #5: When working with an outside law firm, when an issue comes up, the likelihood is that someone at the firm has dealt with it before.
When a local government chooses to outsource legal work to a quality firm with municipal experience, it can feel confident that the firm usually will not have to learn issues from scratch. That is not always the case when working with a one-person, in-house staff that has no outside assistance.
Alan Zimmet is a member of Bryant Miller Olive’s Government Practice Group and is the co-leader of the Litigation Practice Group. He has over 35 years of legal experience and is board certified by The Florida Bar in the area of city, county and local government law. Alan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.