A “Special” Legal Career

One of the most interesting “hidden” legal job markets is the “special purpose district,” a quasi-governmental entity formed by two or more state or local jurisdictions to deal with matters or services that cross jurisdictional lines. Virtually all special districts have a legal staff encompassing an array of both traditional and some not so standard practices that make for a vibrant and interesting legal career.

The Numbers
Special purpose districts are very much under the radar when it comes to law students and attorneys who contemplate where they want to seek legal employment and perhaps build a rewarding career. Big mistake. In ignoring them or not even being aware of their existence and role as legal employers, you may be missing out on a huge opportunity. To indicate just how much under the legal employment radar they are, some students of the genre call them “ghost governments.”

The U.S. Census Bureau http://www.census.gov/govs/go/ reports that, as of mid-2012 (the last date for which statistics are available, next census of governments 2017), there were no fewer than 37,203 special purpose districts in the U.S. (the Pew Charitable Trusts http://www.pewtrusts.org/ put the number slightly higher, at 38,266.

This is far too large a legal market and segment of the national economy to ignore when seeking an attorney or law-related job. California alone has more than 3,400 such entities, and New York has more than 2,600.

Many of these special districts maintain their own in-house counsel offices, some of them quite large. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for example, has a core legal staff of almost 100 attorneys. In addition, other lawyers work directly for the Port Authority’s Compliance, Labor Relations (70 percent of the organization’s workers are unionized), Public and Government Affairs, Inspector General, Business Diversity and Civil Rights, and Procurement offices. This kind of multiple-office needs for lawyers is not unusual in the larger special purpose districts.

The number of special districts grew significantly during the Great Recession, as cash-strapped state and local governments turned to this construct in order to provide essential, fee-based services. The Census Bureau says that the number of special districts nationally grew by 885 between 2007 and 2012.

It is impossible to determine the number of special district attorney and law-related positions beyond saying that they number in the tens of thousands.

What’s So Special?
Special purpose districts are one of the best examples of successful democracy at work. They provide specific, targeted services to local citizens that are too difficult or complex for a single local government to provide.

Special districts are organized local entities other than county, municipal, township or school district governments that are authorized by state law to provide only one or a limited number of designated functions. Fire districts, water districts, library districts, hospitals, and transit authorities are examples of special districts. However, the types of activities that special districts perform can range widely, including: Airports; Cemeteries; Corrections; Education; Electric power; Gas supply; Highways;
Housing and community development; Industrial development; Mortgage credit;
Natural resources; Parking facilities; Parks and recreation; Sea and inland port; facilities; Sewerage; Solid waste management.

Some of the largest and more prominent special districts include the East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD) in the San Francisco Bay area, the Washington Metropolitan Area Airports Authority, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that runs bridges, tunnels, airports and transit in New York City and Northern New Jersey.

Special districts often have considerable autonomy, especially with respect to fiscal and administrative independence. Many are able to determine their own budgets without review  or major modification by other local officials or governments; determine taxes to be levied for their support; fix and collect charges for their services; and/or issue debt without review by another local government.

History
The earliest special purpose districts were formed in the 18th century and were focused on parks. Toll road and canal districts arose early in the 19th century. The first law authorizing special districts originated in California in 1887 and were directed at irrigation. California is still, today, in the forefront of relying on special districts for a variety of local services.  Increasingly, other states are gravitating from tasking local governments with these matters to special purpose districts.

Legal Basis
Originally, special districts were created by specific laws in response to particular local needs. In recent years, a growing number of states have enacted general statutes reforming and consolidating special district laws that, inter alia, provide for definitions, creation, operation, financial reporting, taxation and assessments, elections, and dissolution of special districts. Most such laws grant broad authority to special districts. Several states authorize the creation of special districts by local ordinance or by rule of the Governor and Cabinet.

Regardless of how they come about, special districts have proven to be much more efficient ways to deliver services than local governments, especially when they cross jurisdictional lines.  Also regardless of how they emerge, they are accountable to the state or states in which they exist.

Other Employers
A handful of law firms—mainly boutiques—have specialized practices focusing on special purpose districts. Some larger law firms, especially in California, also have such practice groups.

Typical Practices
Special purpose districts are really a combination of municipal government and private corporations. Consequently, their legal practices encompass much of what local government lawyers and company in-house counsel do.

The Future
Look for the number of special districts to continue to grow. At the same time, look for them to come under closer government scrutiny due to a series of scandals and revelations of questionable practices prompted by the temptations of autonomy and independence. Sweetheart contracts, nepotism in hiring, unauthorized use of credit cards by special district boards and managers, and other shenanigans have come to light in recent years. The more scrutiny and transparency, the more the need for legal input.

More Information
Virtually every state has a special district association. Representative examples include:

California Special Districts Association http://www.csda.net
Florida Association of Special Districts http://www.fasd.com
Special District Association of Colorado http://www.sdaco.org
Special Districts Association of Oregon https://www.sdao.co
Utah Association of Special Districts www.uasd.org
In addition, states with a large number of special districts may have local chapters of their special district associations, e.g.:
Santa Barbara County Chapter of the California Special Districts Association http://www.sbccsda.org
Ventura County Special Districts Association http://www.vcsda.org
Other Organizations
International Municipal Lawyers Association http://www.imla.org/
Publications
Little Hoover Commission. Special Districts: Relics of the Past or Resources for the Future? http://www.lhc.ca.gov/studies/155/report155.html