2007 Autumn, Pg. 56. The New Practitioner's Guide to Representing Municipal Boards.

AuthorBy Attorney Richard D. Sager

New Hampshire Bar Journal


2007 Autumn, Pg. 56.

The New Practitioner's Guide to Representing Municipal Boards

New Hampshire Bar JournalAutumn 2007, Volume 48, No. 3Municipal LawThe New Practitioner's Guide to Representing Municipal BoardsBy Attorney Richard D. SagerI. Introduction

So, you're a relatively new attorney, still a bit wet behind the gills. You know the difference between a writ of summons and a bill in equity. You finally understand how to serve process on a defendant, and what orders of notice are. You are pretty good with your clients. They tend to like you, and respect your opinions and guidance. Congratulations. You are achieving competency. Your professional liability carrier will be pleased.

You then get a call from a friend whose spouse sits on the board of selectmen for a nearby town, wanting to ask you a couple questions, and to inquire whether you might want to help the board out with a few issues that have come up. Or you get a call from the senior partner whose picture is in the hallway of your law office building asking you to cover a school board meeting Thursday night because she has "other plans," and can you meet the client this afternoon?

Municipalities are great clients. They pay their bills, your client doesn't go to jail, and your client doesn't lose their kids. But if you are a relatively new attorney, still glistening from the dew of a law school classroom, representing a town or city, or even a board of a municipality, you lack the tools to fully understand what you are in for.

Providing legal representation to a municipality(fn1) presents many circumstances unique to the practice of law. While possessing many attributes enjoyed by private corporations, municipal boards are subject to an ever increasing body of statutory and case law in the realm of public disclosure, records retention, and liability.

Municipal law is one of the few remaining legal frontiers where, at least in the context of civil law, state's rights butt heads against personal rights.(fn2) Zoning is a prime example, where constitutional issues involving public versus private property rights are always just around the corner. Don't think of municipal law as boring. It is anything but. Representing a town, for example, can involve prosecuting civil and criminal defendants, preparing contracts, public speaking, trial work, and helping to develop and mold an area of the law that is constantly developing and in a state of flux.

There are no classes in law school to adequately prepare you in matters of public relations. But if you read a newspaper, watch the news, surf the internet, or watch Boston Legal or reruns of Matlock, you must realize that so much of what you need to do as a lawyer is being able to communicate effectively. And it isn't just to a judge or a jury. It is to your client, and your client's shareholders: the taxpayers.

A municipality and its various boards offer unique opportunities, as well as unique problems. The client is not a homogenous unit, such as you will encounter with an individual or even a married couple. The members often come from divergent political backgrounds, each with his or her political agenda and bias. So how does one traverse the myriad of conflict inherent in a diverse board, while keeping the municipal client happy? Hopefully, this article will help you navigate that landscape.

So, you're an attorney. It's time to perform. It's time to represent your client, and you have little idea what you are in for. This article is not a treatise of legal trends or an ad nauseum examination of the latest blip on the New Hampshire Supreme Court's radar. This article is the nuts-and-bolts stuff that will provide you with a road map of how to satisfy your client, but perhaps more importantly, ensure they are well represented, and keep your firm employed.

  1. The Basics

    1. Know Thyself. If you end up representing a board of selectmen or city council, sooner or later you will be speaking during the annual meeting into the business end of a microphone, facing a packed auditorium (and possibly a local access cable television audience) trying to answer a legal question from an irate resident who questions the legality of the municipality to tax its citizens. If you don't feel comfortable being on a stage or in the lime light, find another area of the law, such as pensions or real estate.

    2. Prepare Your Home Life. If you enjoy watching television, whether it be for sports, news, or one of the plethora of reality shows, the first thing you need to do is to purchase a digital video recorder, such as TiVo. This is because you will very likely be spending a fair number of your evenings at meetings making certain your client correctly navigates through the thicket of the "Right-to-Know Law"(fn3) and other potential pitfalls that render public boards as a new favorite target for the new breed of plaintiff. Nine times out of ten, this new breed of plaintiff is either the well-to-do individual who hails from another state who comes to New Hampshire to take advantage of the favorable real estate prices, the more lenient regulations pertaining to real estate development, and less red tape, or the individual who has recently moved to New Hampshire to enjoy its beauty and way of life, and who wants to shut the door to any further development or influx of population.

      If you are in a relationship, prepare your significant other. There will be many, many nights where you will not crawl into bed until well after midnight, simply because the board needed to deliberate endlessly upon whether a certain Jane Doe had a right to speak at the meeting, or ruminate on some other equally innocuous or ridiculous issue. And schedule your meals accordingly. A good rule of thumb: When in doubt, eat before the meeting. Many meetings that I thought would last "at most 45 minutes" had me eating cold chicken and mashed potatoes while watching Jay Leno interview the latest Hollywood Somebody.

    3. Dress Appropriately. This may seem like a ridiculous item to include in a legal semi-treatise, but it isn't. The "sophistication"(fn4) of boards varies from municipality to municipality. In some areas, it is absolutely appropriate, and expected, that you will adorn full lawyer garb each time you appear for a formal or informal meeting. In other areas, wearing the Brooks Brothers suit or the Von Furstenberg dress each time you show up will not earn you extra points, but instead the suspicion and resentment of the boards you are hired to represent.

      Many people simply do not feel as comfortable approaching a man or woman with shiny shoes as they would approach one who is more casual in appearance. Although at least one male attorney I know...

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