Besides a broadly shared vision, what’s something the Hon. Anthony Foxx (17th U.S. Secretary of Transportation), Janette Sadik-Khan (NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner), and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (longtime congressional leader on transportation) have in common?
They’re all lawyers by training.
In April 2020, Professor Gregory Shill of the University of Iowa College of Law hosted an ask-me-anything/Q & A for folks interested in urbanism and contemplating law school. A lightly edited compilation appears below. Those interested in the topic may enjoy Prof. Shill’s past work on transportation and urbanism, including here, here, and here. All views represent the personal opinions of Prof. Shill only.
Let’s start out by sketching a few domains of careers for those of you wondering if there are careers in legal urbanism (good news, there are!).
On the transportation side, there are a wide range of agencies that have lawyers (some of them big teams of lawyers). The big employers are US Department of Transportation and state DOTs. Some big cities have DOTs too. Then there’s transit agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).
The private sector and nonprofits have law jobs in transportation too. You have car companies obviously, plus rail, shipping, insurance, aviation, and new mobility technologies. The degree of appeal to urbanists is perhaps variable. But there are opportunities.
Cities themselves also have lawyers representing them directly—perhaps tens of thousands nationwide. The New York City Law Department has around 1,000 lawyers. Iowa City, where I live and work as a law professor, has a City Attorney and four assistant City Attorneys.
Public health departments also need lawyers. There’s a growing overlap between public health and urbanism that predated COVID-19, and if you’re finding yourself more interested in public health lately there are opportunities at the intersection with law and urbanism.
Q: What areas of urbanism can a lawyer work in?
A: Housing (public, private, finance, etc.). Transportation (same). Land use. ADA and other laws concerning public spaces and accommodations. Representing cities. Policy and legislation.
Q: What do you mean by urbanism?
A: When I (and many others) use the term “urbanism,” we’re talking about people in places, not just cities. Human geography.
Q: Do these jobs involve making policy?
A: The above positions are more or less “purely” legal. There are also policy jobs at every level of government that require or favor law degrees. Lawyers bring unique skills in legislative and legal analysis and are also respected as generalists. They do need to be ready to study up on specific policy areas.
Q: What are some of those policy jobs?
A: The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has dozens of members (who are Congressmen and Congresswomen). The committee itself has a staff—actually two, one on the majority side and another on the minority. Each member has one or more staffers whose portfolio includes transportation. In addition, consider the Senate, 50 states plus DC, and cities with city council staffs, and you begin to get a picture. Then you have, again, policy roles in the executive branch/DOTs, MPOs, transit agencies, etc.
A: Another attorney with years of experience tells me:
“USDOT and state DOTs tend to have robust legal departments because the lawyers both manage the lawsuits and they write the regulations. USDOT had thousands of lawyers and a whole unit in every operating agency . . . Lawyers could also work as legislative counsel in a legislature and many specialize in certain areas of law, though it is hard to steer to them (you usually take what you are given). I think the US Government Accountability Office has a lot of lawyers too both for legal [work] and [for] investigation. They also specialize.” And in transportation: “Generally speaking, lawyers are looking to practice law for a transportation agency, write regulations or write law.”
Q: So how do you break in and get one of these jobs?
A: For starters, bar associations may have committees working in these areas with room for student members. Gear your internship and other work experiences, as well as your coursework, in these directions. Write a note on the topic.
Q: What are some of the better paths to solid state/local government jobs in DOTs, housing authorities, planning departments, etc.?
A: There’s no one way to break in, and transportation has not traditionally been a hot spot for lawyers (which is part of the problem). But the jobs and internships exist. If you’re a student, a lot of agencies have internship programs. Dig around. Find someone to email if there’s no info.
For example, I know a 1L who got an internship with a major transit agency for this summer. His internship was canceled because of COVID-19; he then approached an MPO. They did not have a listing, but after he approached them they hired him as an intern for the summer.
Q: If you are interested in the legal side of urbanism, which classes should you take while in law school?
A: There are many. Take classes like land use, state/local government, corporate finance, real estate/housing law, administrative law, and legal clinics your university offers.
Q: What if I want to sue DOTs, not work for them?
A: Plaintiffs’ lawyers are another area. I wrote about litigation against state entities for dangerous street design here. (It’s long been possible to sue for dangerous maintenance/conditions; rarer to be able to sue for dangerous design.) You could potentially build a practice over time, but cases against state entities often take a long time. You would also likely do a lot of other plaintiff-side work while doing that—but if impact litigation is your goal, it’s something that is possible here.
Q: Outside a New York-focused practice, is the idea of liability for street design laughable in most states?
A: Actually, there’ve been several seven-figure settlements in California in recent years. Florida verdicts/settlements too. So, three big states/legal markets. There may be cases elsewhere. Not certain, but personal injury firms and/or ones specializing in suing government entities may be best.
Q: Is compensation better as a legislative assistant or committee staff?
A: Usually committee staff. If your interest is transportation, it’s probably even better to be on committee staff. Transportation funding only comes up every five or more years, due to the multi-year nature of transportation appropriations. Regular-office staff have no reason to prioritize transportation. However, the committee positions are harder to get. If they can’t get jobs on the Hill right away (and all Hill jobs are competitive, not only committees), people with JDs should develop expertise elsewhere, build a name for themselves and build contacts on the Hill, and then shift over to the Hill.
[One commenter says: “Lawyers attached to committees can make living wages. In fact, many committee lawyers are pretty senior and/or go to the Hill after time elsewhere in private practice/advocacy.”]
Q: How does someone shortly out of law school break into urbanism centered work when their current practice is pretty much unrelated?
A: The constraint of “lack of relevant experience” is in part of a function of framing and years out of law school. The more junior you are, the easier it is to pitch the experience you are concerned is “unrelated” as related. For example, if you’re at a law firm doing litigation and want to cross over to an agency, which maybe mostly handles procurement, compliance, and regs, emphasize your research and drafting experience, and maybe take on a pro bono project at the firm that’s got a transactional angle. Think broadly about relevance. The further out you are, the harder this pitch is to make. It’s a spectrum, not a cliff, but in general it is easier to switch when you are under say five years post-graduation.
Q: Does environmental justice also count as an area of urbanism that a lawyer can practice?
A: Of course! It’s absurd that we simply accept for example urban asthma clusters as an unavoidable fact of life when they are the consequence of policy choices. If you care about cities, about places, then environmental justice matters. [In response to a question about joint degrees:] If you want to practice in the space, in my view a JD is enough. Opportunity costs and other tradeoffs beyond that are highly subjective.
Q: If I’m graduating with a master’s in city/regional planning and want to focus on urban issues and advocacy in that area, should I apply to law school?
A: I don’t encourage everyone to go to law school—there are always many factors to consider—so I can’t say for sure, but the combination of interests you mention makes me think law school is worth considering. It sounds like you could be happy as an urbanist lawyer.
Q: Are these positions widely available in the southeast (e.g., TN/GA/NC/SC?)
A: In the southeast, you’re probably talking about city government, state DOTs, and housing and transit authorities. There may be city DOTs too (tend to correlate with city size); Atlanta just established one in 2019. If you’re open to DC, many more jobs open up.
Q: If a degree in law won’t help me pursue urban issues then I want to avoid 3 more years of school and debt. How do I determine if it is worth it?
A: Educational debt is a serious concern. I took on nearly $200,000 of it myself. I’m not current or an expert on identifying scholarships and so forth, but figures on average debt levels, average scholarships, etc. are available online (e.g., here and here) and help distinguish between sticker price and prices actually paid. Comparison shop, do your research, and find good value for money. Also, the federal government, some state governments, and many law schools offer various types of debt forgiveness/repayment assistance. Some agencies help further. Look into this.
Now, time to address legal employment opportunities in housing. First, a message from a friend who helps build affordable housing (and makes money doing it—she is a partner at a firm):
“I am a partner at a transactional real estate firm with a practice focused on affordable housing . . . In this capacity, I represent investors and developers on matters relating to traditional real estate finance and federal and state tax issues in connection with the acquisition, financing, syndication and development of affordable housing projects across the United States . . . Our firm consists of 21 attorneys with offices in D.C. and Los Angeles . . . [Nationally] there are a handful of small firms as well as practice groups at larger firms that specialize in this area of law . . . [A]ffordable housing relies very heavily on public private partnerships and joint ventures. Opportunities for legal positions in this field are also available with HUD, state and municipal housing agencies, and nonprofit legal service providers or foundations.”
That gives you a picture of both affordable housing policy in the US and how lawyers fit in: HUD. State and city housing agencies. Nonprofits (legal and other). Private sector. Public-private partnerships (P3s) that require many lawyers: need to negotiate, write it up, comply with regulations, finance it, etc.
On the private side, you’d get a lot of experience working with various stakeholders, finance and compliance, and also be less constrained than civil servants in outside activity. (Hello, community board service and op-eds!) Compensation would also typically be higher.
Q: Who makes policy?
Most people who make policy do not have policy degrees. In fact, while lawyers are often not the best qualified on paper do it, many—and in some instances most—of the senior people making policy have JDs. I was struck by this when I worked on the Hill and it’s one reason I went to law school. In policy discussions among well-informed people, lawyers often have an advantage. That’s a descriptive claim, based on the comparative advantage of lawyers in understanding law.
Q: What’s the expected value of a JD for someone interested in urbanism?
A: Law may not be the cheapest route, in terms of up-front expenditure. But it probably raises the ceiling of what you can accomplish, both in terms of policy change and compensation.
A JD is usually cheaper than sticker price; if you do your research and pick the right school, and hold fast to your preferences, constraints, and long-term goals, you can make an educated choice that puts you where you want to be. I feel obligated to acknowledge that there are many unhappy lawyers out there. However, anecdotally and in my personal observation, some of that is due to choices people make to optimize for status (and compensation) rather than for satisfaction. If you’re working on things that matter to you then you will like the work better.
The best description I’ve heard of lawyers is that we’re the people who read the rules on the inside lid of the box. If that sounds tedious to you, then it’s probably not for you. If you like playing the “game”—i.e., the primary activity governed by the rules—but also the rules, it could be a good fit. There is room for a wide variety of preference intensities re: interest in rules vs. the content of the activity, just as there is in other professions.
A few final things:
Consider Land Use: this is a very common need. Clients of all types need clarity on whether they can do X on a given piece of land. This is true in firms big and small. It’s also true at agencies. Once you become knowledgeable, you’ll have a superpower you can use in advocacy.
People in rural and urban areas alike have acute legal needs. Eviction, Section 8, tax credits, etc. However, these don’t tend to pay well. That’s part of a broader social issue. But the opportunities exist; if this is your dream, see what kind of debt you’re looking at and whether you can swing it. And be sure to look at loan forgiveness/repayment-assistance programs that are targeted at that kind of work.
Final point: COVID-19 has interfered with test administration. If you’ve taken the LSAT already and want to start in the fall, some schools are still taking applications. Look at their websites. The same may apply for schools that accept the GRE.
And that’s a wrap! If you have additional questions, reach out via DM on Twitter: @greg_shill.