Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms may be in the market for a new lawyer, since the unique job of city attorney is among the 35 or so cabinet members asked earlier this week to resign from their jobs.
Bottoms hasn’t said when she’ll determine whether she retains city attorney Jeremy Berry or the others, and her press office didn’t respond to a question about what she seeks in a top lawyer. Berry, a Dentons partner when former Mayor Kasim Reed tapped him for the role last year, declined to comment.
Past occupants of the position said one of its challenges is that the city attorney is one of only two top officials who report to both the mayor and City Council.
Susan Pease Langford, Atlanta’s city attorney from 1998 to 2001, said that, although the position is a political appointment, the role is not viewed as a political position.
“You are advising on the state of the law, and the law doesn’t change based on who’s asking,” said Langford, now in private practice at Butler Snow.
Linda DiSantis, city attorney from 2002 to 2006 under Mayor Shirley Franklin, said the city attorney ”must be there for both parts of the government, just as an in-house lawyer is always trying to do what’s best for the whole organization.”
Other veterans of the city government discussed the challenges of being Atlanta’s top lawyer and what makes him or her successful in the position, including strong management skills and the ability to delegate.
“I think [the role of city attorney] has changed enormously in the last 20 years, including, for one thing, that airport, which is like running a big-time corporation,” said Mary Carole Cooney, who spent 22 years in the city attorney’s office, including a stint as deputy city attorney. “Laws have changed a great deal and made the city more like a multifaceted corporation.”
The setup of the office reflects the breadth of civil legal matters it handles for the city and its 8,000 employees. It is divided into about five departments, ranging from aviation, which serves as counsel to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, to watershed management, according to the office’s website.
It includes about 85 employees, split evenly between attorneys and other professional staff, including paralegals.
Given Bottoms’ focus on transparency and equity, she may want someone who could advise her in those areas, said Sharon Gay, who served as deputy chief of staff and executive counsel to Mayor Bill Campbell and is now managing partner of the Atlanta office of Dentons. And the fact that Bottoms herself is an attorney may also play into her decision, she added.
“You would expect that a mayor who is also a lawyer might have some very specific skill set or background or expertise in mind,” she said. “You have a little more nuanced view of how to select a lawyer when you are one.”
Bottoms joined the bar in 1994 after graduating from Georgia State University law school.