Unlike a district attorney or public defender, who usually handles criminal cases, a city attorney generally handles civil cases, advising the city on legal matters and representing it in court. City attorneys typically advise city officials on legal issues encounter in the course of city business, ranging from nuisances to tax law to municipal annexations. A city attorney advise the city's legislative body (such as a city council) on the legality of a proposed action and assist in the drafting of ordinances and resolutions. In some jurisdictions, city attorneys also function as prosecutors, pursuing low-level criminal cases against persons charged with violating city ordinances, such as those relating to public drunkenness or "violations of building codes, zoning ordinances, health regulations, license requirements, traffic regulations, or other such ordinances."
The client of the city attorney is the city, and the city attorney is typically responsible to both the mayor and the city council. This may cause complexities when the mayor and the city council disagree, or when city council members disagree among themselves.
In some cities, the city attorney position is very powerful. For example, the elected position of San Francisco City Attorney is important due to the large array of duties associated with the office. Unlike all other California counties, San Francisco is a consolidated city-county, meaning that the San Francisco City Attorney handles legal duties in areas that would in other counties be the responsibility of the county counsel (such as county health and social services functions) as well as the duties of all California city attorneys (police and fire). The San Francisco city attorney is also unusually powerful because of the broad scope of properties and activities operated by the city and county government (including land ownership in San Mateo County); for example, the city owns the San Francisco International Airport, Crystal Springs Reservoir, Sharp Park Golf Course, San Francisco Employees' Retirement System, and Port of San Francisco.
- "City attorney". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 14 April 2021.
- Ferdinand P. Palla, The Role of a City Attorney, 2 Santa Clara Lawyer 171 (1962).
- Doyle W. Buckwalter & J. Ivan Legler, City Managers and City Attorneys: Associates or Adversaries?, Public Administration Review, Vol. 47, No. 5 (Sep.-Oct. 1987), pp. 393-403.
- Brigham Smith, Who's the Boss? Deciding Who the Client is When You're a City Attorney, 11 T.M. Cooley J. Prac. & Clinical L. 1 (2009).
- Louise Renne, The Office of the City Attorney of San Francisco, 47 Golden Gate U. L. Rev. 125 (2017).