Living for the City: Michael J. Mais On Working as a Municipal Attorney

On any given day, Long Beach (CA) Assistant City Attorney Michael J. Mais might find himself advising the Airport Advisory Commission on open meetings law, explaining an intricate zoning regulation to city council members, or interviewing applicants for a summer internship position.

As head of the city attorney's departmental counsel division, Mr. Mais provides legal advice to city boards and commissions. In addition, one of his favorite parts of the job is working with the community.

"A lot of times we have direct contact with people that live in the city: the constituents, the business people," he said. "We're able to help them out of situations they've gotten themselves into, give them guidance on which way to go. Just working with the community we have a lot of opportunities to do that in our office."

Mr. Mais graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1978. His first job was with the city prosecutor's office in Long Beach. After a brief stint in private practice, he joined the city attorney's office. He specializes in municipal law, land use and planning, aviation law, environmental regulations, and other areas.

Q: What attracted you to working for the city?

A: I was born and raised in Long Beach, so working for the city seemed natural for me. The other thing that attracted me to the city was stability and the benefits you get. I felt that working for municipal government would give me a better chance to spend time with my family; I have four kids. All of those things turned out to be true.

Q: How does one get into municipal law?

A: The best way to get into a municipal government position is to volunteer your time if you can. If you can get a paying job with a city or county, that's great, but a lot of times there's not flexibility in the budget for that. Our office, for instance, we hire a first-year law student to work as a summer intern. That's a great way to get your foot in the door and see if you like this kind of work.

What attracts a lot of people to this job ultimately is the variety of the work you're exposed to as a municipal attorney. You have to pretty much know a little bit about a whole lot of different areas of the law.

Typically, for a young attorney, if you're a city attorney, civil side, you're able to handle things that you, in all likelihood, would never be able to handle on your own if you were in a large private practice. You have to go through the whole associate thing to work your way up the ladder if you're in a large firm. With most municipal law firms, you don't really have the luxury; they get your feet wet real quick. You have a lot more responsibility right out of the box.

Q: What is one misconception people have about the job?

A: Anybody who starts in our office that has come from a private practice is totally amazed at how much work there is. A lot of people in the private sector and a lot of new attorneys starting out think, "Oh, it's a government job, it's a kick-back job."

Q: What do you look for when hiring?

A: I look for a couple of things. Number one, they have to appear to be smart. They also have to have a good work ethic. I always check the references to make sure the people we're hiring are hard workers. The third thing I always look for is compatibility with other people in the office.

Q: What's a common stumbling block for new hires?

A: The breadth of knowledge that you need to handle any facet of a municipal job. If you're litigating, for instance, you have to learn all about the California Tort Claims Act, which governs municipal litigation in the state of California. They really don't teach that at all in law school.

The other stumbling block is most law schools don't teach municipal law at all. There are a lot of things that are unique to municipal law, such as the Tort Claims Act, the California Public Records Act, the Brown Act, which is the open meeting law. There are a lot of things that you have to get up to speed on that probably you would never be exposed to in law school or a private practice setting.

Q: Who's your favorite lawyer in movies, TV, or books?

A: Definitely Joe Pesci ("My Cousin Vinny"). I watch that movie over and over. Actually Marisa Tomei had the best part in the movie, but that's my favorite. I could say Atticus Finch, but that's too corny.

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