WE have all had a good laugh over lawyer jokes, but when you need a lawyer it is no laughing matter. Good legal advice can help achieve your goals, avoid costly problems or solve problems when they arise. This is even truer for government than for the rest of us, because government undertakes so many diverse, complex and often risky activities — from building roads to policing — where the public interest and the public purse are at stake.
So it is no joke when Seattle’s mayor and city attorney just can’t seem to get along in doing their jobs, especially in Mayor Mike McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes’ public dispute over the pending police reforms required by a U.S. Department of Justice settlement agreement. Each points to the city charter as empowering him to decide the city’s position; the mayor says the chief executive is responsible for the performance of the police, and the city attorney says he has “supervisory control” over city litigation.
The policing issues are critically important to our city. Reasonable minds can differ over what to do and how. But a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship between the mayor and city attorney is of even greater concern, because it threatens to undermine all the other work they must do together to advance the public interest.
When we were in office and working together we didn’t always agree on issues, but we understood our respective roles and the importance of working collaboratively. We did not come to this by parsing the city charter’s words defining our powers and duties, but from a common-sense understanding that we needed each other to do our jobs effectively. A lawyer is not of much use without a client and a client needs a lawyer to prevent or solve problems.
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Trust is fundamental to any attorney-client relationship. City officials are less likely to ask for legal advice when they should, or follow that advice if they don’t have confidence in their lawyers. Government lawyers earn that confidence by providing quality, timely legal advice that helps clients achieve their goals. Conversely, that confidence and trust is eroded if the legal advice is perceived as unreliable, either because it is unsound or so pervaded by the lawyer’s political or policy preferences as to be unbalanced.
Unlike private practice, the city attorney’s client relationships are complicated by some unique factors. He doesn’t get to pick his clients and they don’t get to pick their lawyers. And they’re in that relationship not just for one case or issue, but for years. Further, because the city attorney is independently elected it is not always clear just who is the client. The people? The mayor or council elected by the people, who may disagree among themselves? Or is it an even higher authority — the state and federal constitutions, which the city attorney swears to uphold even against what city officials or a majority of the people may want to do?
Sorting this out may not be easy, but the city attorney has to take the long view. Even if the city attorney is right and the mayor is wrong (and only one of us can remember that ever happening during the time we worked together), a mayor prefers to be persuaded rather than told what to do. If persuasion fails, it should be an issue of transcendent importance before the city attorney tries to impose his position on the mayor. Even if he arguably has the authority, doing so can seriously damage the attorney-client relationship across many other important issues.
As a prosecutor, the city attorney also has important public-safety responsibilities that depend upon close collaboration with the police. Disagreements between police and prosecutors are nothing new, but they must not so damage relationships as to risk undermining public safety.
Regardless of who is right on police-reform issues or who is the decider under the city charter, the mayor and the city attorney must make the attorney-client relationship work to serve the public interest. In that sense, we are all their clients.
Norm Rice, left, previously served as mayor of Seattle. Mark Sidran previously served as Seattle city attorney during Rice’s administration.