Every Board of County Commissioners in North Carolina must appoint an attorney to be its legal advisor (GS 153A-114). All 100 counties have a county attorney, but the arrangements each has made for legal representation are diverse. Some county attorneys in North Carolina are solo practitioners or members of a law firm who work for a county on a contract basis while maintaining an active private practice. These attorneys typically attend governing board meetings and receive other requests for work that are channeled through the county manager. Counties who have full-time, in-house attorneys have greater exposure and accessibility to department heads and county officials. The in-house attorney often has a greater opportunity to practice preventive law (i.e., counseling county personnel regarding appropriate policies and practices, exploring legal considerations before disputes erupt into lawsuits, advising employees regarding appropriate courses of action as problems arise, etc.). The daily presence of an attorney creates intangible value in avoiding legal expenses that might otherwise occur.
On October 1, 1987, Rockingham County switched from the contracted attorney model to employing a full-time County Attorney and establishing a Legal Department. Under this arrangement, the County Attorney is a regular local government employee, is paid a salary, and works only on County legal matters. Currently, the staff of the Legal Department consists of the County Attorney, a full-time legal secretary, and two part-time paralegals.
A County Attorney needs to be a generalist, but also have some specialized knowledge of local government law. He or she must be knowledgeable in such general areas as contract law, employment law, civil procedure, and trial practice, as well as specific local government legal matters (i.e., governing Board procedure, open meetings, public records, purchasing, property tax assessment and collections, budget and financial procedures, and zoning). From time to time, a county with a full-time attorney may also retain outside counsel for specialized or unusually complex litigation since, as a practical matter, a full-time county attorney could not be devoted to complex or specialized litigation without impairing the quality of service he or she routinely renders the County in day-to-day matters.
County Attorneys must be able to work and communicate effectively with public officials, County employees, the press, and the public. The attorney must be able to understand the job requirements of administrators like the County Manager and department heads and give accurate and practical legal advice. The County Attorney must represent all commissioners effectively, even if those commissioners do not agree among themselves, in order to assist the governing board as a whole in achieving its goals for the delivery of services to the citizens.