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What Does a County Attorney Do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The job description for a county attorney depends on the county where the attorney practices. Generally speaking, county attorneys are public employees who work at the county level, representing the interests of the government in court in addition to advising public officials on legal matters. They do not practice law privately and the scope of the cases they handle depends on whether there is also a district attorney in the region. If there is no district attorney, county attorneys handle civil and criminal cases all the way to the level of district court. If one is present, county attorneys practice only in county court and may not be involved in criminal cases.

To become a county attorney, it is necessary to attend law school and pass the bar exam in the state where the attorney plans to practice. Focusing on public interest law while in school and pursuing internships offering experience in government offices is recommended, as this will prepare an attorney for practice as a county attorney. Once qualified, attorneys can apply to counties with openings to get work experience in an office before running for election as county attorneys. If a county hires, rather than electing, its attorneys, this job can be won through application and appointment.

The structure of a county attorney's office varies. For some county attorneys, the focus of the work is on civil matters like restraining orders, child custody disputes, and so forth, paired with advising county officials by request. Officials can have questions about policy and enforcement, as well as the legality of various activities conducted at the county level. County attorneys must keep up with the laws in the region and pay close attention to proposed ordinances and laws to identify potential conflicts.

Other county attorneys also handle criminal cases. Crimes like robbery, murder, and rape are charged as crimes against the government, rather than individual victims, and the county attorney represents the county in the suit, acting as a prosecutor. The county attorney develops a case, assembles witnesses, participates in evidence discovery, and goes to trial with the case if the case appears to have merit.

Pay for working as a county attorney tends to be much lower than the salaries available to attorneys working in private practice. These jobs do come with benefits like access to pension funds, health care, government vehicles, and specialized insurance products. People usually apply for positions as county attorneys because they are interested in serving the public interest.

How Much Do County Attorneys Make?

The salary for a county attorney can be quite variable depending on what part of the country the job is in, how experienced the attorney is, and other factors. While nationwide, the pay scale varies from about $60,000 a year to up to $500,000 a year, most county attorneys will make something in the range of $80,000 to $120,000.

In addition to a regular salary, some attorneys get yearly bonuses or further payments as they complete cases. In most states, taxpayer dollars are used to pay the district and county attornies, as they are an important part of the workings of local government. In this way, they are similar to sheriffs, court justices, and other elected officials.

Who Does the County Attorney Answer To?

County attornies are held accountable through a few different means. Firstly, as part of the workings of a state government, the people in that state hold the attorney accountable through elections, voicing opinions, and participating in local government. Secondly, the attorney must act in accordance with the state bar in their area. State bars are responsible for setting guidelines and creating ethical standards for those working in law.

Finally, the state legislature may have the ability to discipline or remove a county attorney who is not acting in accordance with the law. Exact procedures for getting a county attorney out of office are unique from state to state.

Reasons for Removal From Office

While there are many reasons that a county attorney may be removed from office, there are a few to be aware of as a citizen. These are similar to reasons for removing any other state officials and include the following problems:

  • The attorney is willfully acting with misconduct or not fulfilling his/her duties.
  • The attorney has been charged with a crime.
  • The attorney has become incapable of the job, either mentally or physically.

The proper process will need to be followed to remove an attorney from their position. This includes identifying proof that the attorney has acted inappropriately or that something has happened that makes them unfit to continue holding the position.

Are County Attorneys Elected Officials?

County attorneys are elected officials that remain in their position for a limited amount of time. The terms for county attorneys usually last four or six years, depending on the state where they are working. Elections are an important way to limit the power of a county attorney. If the people under the attorney's jurisdiction do not approve of his or her actions, they can vote to replace the attorney after the term has been served. This is why it is vital for county attorneys to act in the interest of their constituents.

How Do You Become a County Attorney?

Being a district attorney allows you to further a career in both law and government. If you have been working on such a career, the position may be a good next step for you. Keep in mind that being a county attorney is not an entry-level job. You will need a degree in law and experience to qualify.

To become a county attorney, you will not only need the proper background to become a lawyer, but you will need to be able to run as an elected official as well. This means that you will need to have an understanding of the basics of how to run a campaign as well as an awareness of current issues in your area that you could help solve. Getting votes requires you to be involved in the community, so that voters will recognize you and what you stand for when a district attorney seat opens up.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By indemnifyme — On Nov 04, 2011

@strawCake - Government benefits are great, but I think the difference in salary between an attorney who works in private practice and a county attorney is a lot! I was curious, so I looked it up. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a lawyer who works in local government (like a country attorney) is $82,590. But the average wage for all lawyers is $110,590.

I think that difference could really add up over the years. Also, lawyers who work for big companies get some really great benefits and good retirements plans also. So I think working as a county attorney could be a great starting point for a lawyer, but might not be a good thing to do for your whole career.

By strawCake — On Nov 03, 2011

I think having state government benefits definitely makes up for the difference between a county attorney salary and a private practice attorney salary. I know government insurance and retirement plans tend to be excellent!

However, I think you would also need to have a passion for serving the public too. It sounds like a county attorney is pretty much a jack of all trades: advising about laws, prosecuting cases, dealing with domestic disputes, etc. It sounds like a lot of work, and stressful too. I think you would have to really want to do the job to put yourself through that!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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