City Attorney vs. District Attorney: What’s the Difference?

  • By: Tara Astbury
  • August 3, 2023
a group of people at a table listening to a presenter from the group

District attorneys (DAs)  are commonly referred to as state attorneys or prosecuting attorneys. Although there are 50 states, there are 94 U.S. district courts, with each court having one DA. 

City attorneys branch off into each state’s many municipalities, with one appointed to each. 

Both titles require immense drive and dedication to the due diligence of items like ordinances, policies, procedures, and contracts, as well as understanding the law at the federal, state, and local levels.

There are many things to note when it comes to the differences between district attorneys and city attorneys. The primary difference is that DAs work for and represent the government during criminal prosecutions, while city attorneys handle civil cases and advise and represent city officials. Both have an obligation to serve justice.

Read on to learn more about city and district attorneys, and discover how software like eScribe improves the efficiency of meetings and other types of civic engagement.

What is a City Attorney?

City attorneys work within a particular municipal government and are either appointed or elected. Because of this, a common misconception is that they work for the general public.  Private citizens cannot ask for legal advice or receive representation from city attorneys. However, attorneys still play a critical role in city governance.

City Attorney Roles and Responsibilities

There are a myriad of laws, depending on the state, on how the attorney and client relationship is viewed. Most states recognize city officials, employees, and other members of the government as embodiments of the city. This means the attorney has no obligation to those individuals as if they were separate clients. Instead, their client—even if a government official is getting sued individually—is the city itself. 

The daily function of a city attorney consists of many duties, such as consulting with board members and standing committees on city ordinances, participating in city council meetings, ensuring the city obeys state and federal regulations, coordinating litigation involving the city, managing claims made against the city, preparing contracts, running municipal courts, and even prosecuting civil cases.

City Attorney Salary

Larger cities often have multiple attorneys, while smaller cities may only employ one. Additionally, with smaller cities, there may be a contract with an independent law firm. In order to obtain a position as a city attorney, one must have graduated from an accredited law school, have extensive legal experience, and be a member of the state’s bar. 

So, how much does a city attorney make exactly? The average salary sits at about $138,000. However, it’s important to note that the size of the city and experience also contributes to a city attorney’s compensation.

What is a District Attorney?

District attorneys are responsible for prosecuting criminals who violate federal law in the district they serve. They often prosecute serious cases, like murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, and theft. 

District Attorney Roles and Responsibilities

Similar to city attorneys, DAs do not represent private citizens. Rather, DAs work on behalf of the state and district where a law was broken, and have the power to decide on how to proceed with prosecution. 

A case begins when law enforcement notifies and submits evidence of a crime to the DAs office. From here, an investigation begins and DAs speak with victims and negotiate a possible plea deal with the defense attorney. DA’s also work to keep the community safe, whether that be assisting with programs to keep ex-offenders out of trouble or other civic engagement examples.

District Attorney Salary

An average salary for a DA is around $107,000, but many factors can influence this range, such as the size of the community they serve and experience.


Unlocking the Power of eScribe for Your Municipality

eScribe provides an end-to-end solution for meeting management, specifically designed for professionals in the public sector. The software streamlines council and government meetings, from powering electronic voting to collaboration on documents to virtual meeting capabilities.

Core features include:

  • Meeting Manager: Create, share, modify, and collaborate on meeting materials in real-time.  
  • Meeting Minutes: Take minutes directly within the platform and mark motions as the meeting progresses. 
  • Reporting and Workflows: Manage deadlines, track statuses, save time, and handle reports and approvals with ease.
  • Collaboration Tools: Give elected officials the freedom to work from anywhere by providing secure access for searching for and reviewing content, downloading meeting materials, and keeping track of comments, notes, and action items.

eScribe in action: Download the City of Greensboro Case Study to learn how eScribe helped the city save time and money while streamlining processes and reducing stress.