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Top 14 Ways to Drive Your City Attorney Crazy (or Make Him Take a Vacation)

A wise mayor once told me that you train people how to treat you. He also told me that an accountant’s job is to reduce cost, a lawyer’s job is to reduce risk, but an owner’s (manager’s) job is to grow the business by taking risk and wisely spending money. I thought about those pearls of wisdom when I read a recent article by wise city manager entitled Attorneys Should Not Manage But Are Needed For Good Management.

The good and wise manager’s four narratives were: attorneys can make the policymaking process inefficient and ineffective; in a crisis, attorneys are more concerned with potential legal liability rather than relationships with customers or the public; the attorney’s organizational strategy is to prevent, detect, and punish legal violations rather than foster aspirational self-governance by enabling responsible conduct; and finally, attorneys only see legal problems.

The common thread is that attorneys are compliance driven to avoid legal sanctions, thereby constraining management. In all fairness, the conclusion claimed not to disparage the legal profession, but held that the bottom line is both attorneys and managers are needed for organizations to function efficiently and effectively in a lawful way and they should be respectful of the other’s role.

In that vein, and because I am just this side of a long due vacation, I offer a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to the city manager in the writing spirit of a former city attorney, Patrick Cronan, whose advice periodically appeared in the publication Texas Town & City. His whereabouts are unknown, so I offer you my own Top Ten List, of 14 items. Enjoy!

How to Drive Your City Attorney Crazy!

It may be that your city attorney is already insane, and you will not require the advice that follows. To determine the sanity of your counselor-at-law, one should carefully observe him during the next discussion of your city’s dog ordinance. After three or four hours of discussion, glance over in his direction and observe the expression on his face. If he appears to be grinning wildly, you can conclude that either he just remembered his compensation is based on the hours he spends on city business, or he is truly insane.

Assuming that, following your investigation, you determine that your attorney needs assistance from you to reach the Land of Eternal Bliss, we offer the following suggestions:

  1. If you are holding regular conferences with your attorney, stop doing so at once. This will keep him from finding out what you have in mind until it is too late to do anything about it. If you have been in the habit of sending him copies of correspondence that threatens litigation, stop immediately. If you like to threaten taxpayers with physical abuse for being chronic complainers, try to keep the knowledge of this from your attorney. Although this procedure may take several months or even years to drive your lawyer to drink and/or a psychiatrist, when it is combined with the strategies discussed below, quicker results can be expected.
  2. Call him at least once each day on minor problems. If you can time the calls for mid-morning or mid-afternoon (instead of first thing in the morning or afternoon), your expected result can be achieved more quickly.

Combine this tactic with the first, so your attorney knows all about minor problems, but nothing about major ones. Doing so will almost guarantee a suitable result.

  1. Never accept a statement from his secretary that he is in conference. Always try to break in on him at any time. After all, the job of city attorney involves exciting work and great prestige, and the city attorney should stop whatever other work he has to assist you. If you have managed (through a stroke of luck) to convince your city attorney to work for you on a monthly retainer, this tactic will work particularly well. When you do this, try to ensure that the question you have involves something that you have asked your attorney about at least two times previously.
  2. Once you have started the city attorney on a project, do not inform him of changes. Let us suppose you have asked your attorney to draw up a lease. Three weeks later, call and say one or more of the following:

• “You mean I forgot to tell you that we wanted the lease by 3:00 this afternoon?”

• “We decided to make it for one year, and to charge $50 per month more, and to get the insurance ourselves.”

• “I’m sure I told you about needing a lease. I remember now, it was between the third and fourth beer after the last council meeting.”

  1. Do not tell your lawyer what you are going to do; always tell him after it has been done. This is a particularly good tactic when you know there are potential problems. For example, if you are going to fire the chief of police, let him know after the deed is done.
  2. Always tell the newspaper and TV what you have done, and why, before you tell the city attorney. For example, you could tell a TV reporter (on tape would be even better) that “I fired the chief of police because everybody knows that a woman can’t do the job.” The more doubtful the legality of your action, the more success you will have with this tactic. Combined with the other suggestions presented here, you should be able to institutionalize your attorney. However, even when used by itself, this tactic is almost guaranteed to result in a satisfactory demonstration of hair pulling and shouting.
  3. Start campaigns of enforcement of minor laws. After all, the laws are supposed to be enforced, aren’t they? After decades of not enforcing the stop sign ordinance, instruct the police department to issue at least 15 tickets a day. Obviously, there is no need to give warning tickets, because “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” If your city attorney also serves as city prosecuting attorney, this suggestion will be particularly effective; however, satisfactory results can be obtained even if he is not.
  4. Never send your attorney a council agenda. If you cannot get by with that, make sure the agenda arrives at his office no more than two hours before the council meeting. It is always interesting to observe what happens when the attorney learns for the first time at the meeting about some legally doubtful course of action.
  5. Make him a glorified secretary. Let him do a lot of the routine clerical work, such as drafting standard ordinances (which will be copies from an identical one used last year) or contracts. Perhaps he should retype the airport lease, in which no changes are required except the date. Ask him to write routine letters for the mayor’s signature. Of course, if you are paying by the hour for your lawyer’s services, this tactic may not work. In fact, your lawyer may be overjoyed. Only if a monthly salary is paid will this be truly effective.
  6. Do not keep your files. Destroy written decisions or opinions that you have received from your attorney. In that way, you can get him to go back and resurrect his own materials from his files. Since you will not be asking for a new opinion, you can justifiably complain if he charges you for the three hours his secretary spent going through cardboard boxes in his back room.
  7. Always consult other legal sources. Perhaps you can demand that your attorney obtain an Attorney General Opinion. Such an opinion, after all, will be written by an assistant six months out of law school and is clearly superior to what your lawyer will tell you. If there is an attorney in the audience at a council meeting, ask that individual’s opinion and rely on it. The attorney in the audience might be an expert on the Internal Revenue Code or some other area of law, but since his opinion doesn’t cost you anything, clearly it is superior to the city attorney’s.

You can vary this tactic by seeking other opinions before you ask your lawyer (keeping them secret from your lawyer, naturally). Sometimes, when you don’t like the result, you can loudly demand a second opinion in writing. While your attorney is unlikely to be upset by your getting a second opinion, if it is loudly and publicly demanded, this will be a successful tactic.

  1. Demand his opinion at public meetings. If he suggests that a particular course of action is illegal, do it anyway. Then he can see his opinion quoted against him in court. There is obviously no need to allow your attorney time to do research, because he is intimately familiar with all 13,248 books in his law library. Your attorney will particularly enjoy seeing himself quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
  2. Slant the facts. Since the answer to almost every legal question depends on its factual basis, conceal or change the facts to compel the attorney to give you the answer you want. Some attorneys have developed tricks to keep you from hiding facts from them. Always be on the lookout for these. For example, you must not answer fully if your lawyer asks, “What does the other side say?” If there are ordinances that apply to the question, try to be certain that your attorney is not given a copy.
  3. Answer legal questions yourself. This always makes for an interesting situation, particularly at a public meeting. Your attorney must either publicly point out your ignorance and make it appear that you do not know what you are talking about, or he must keep quiet and allow a decision to be made on the basis of incorrect information.

Although these suggestions are not exclusive (surely you can think of 20 or 30 more), they should enable you to get started. If you keep firmly in mind your goal of driving your attorney insane, you should succeed within six months.

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