These are busy times for Austin City Attorney Anne Morgan and her team of lawyers.
Morgan and the 60 lawyers in her office are analyzing about 2,000 pieces of proposed legislation being considered by lawmakers in the Texas Capitol. All this while handling an increasing number of municipal bond issuances, land-use controversies and the legal matters that come with one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas.
“The sheer net volume of work has grown as the city has grown,” she said.
A fifth generation Texan, Morgan grew up in Galveston County where her parents moved from Austin. She attended high school in New Hampshire but returned to Texas after high school to attend the University of Texas at Austin.
Morgan earned her undergraduate degree in Plan II — UT’s liberal arts honors program. She worked in Boston for a year before moving to Washington, D.C., where she attended law school at the American University and started her legal career before moving back to Austin 30 years ago.
The Texas Lawbook received interviewed Morgan for a series of articles about the attorneys leading Texas’s major metros.
Texas Lawbook: You’ve been at the Austin city attorney’s office for 13 years and before that the attorney general’s office. Did always want to be in public service?
Anne Morgan: When I went to law school, I thought I wanted to help people in some way, and I didn’t really know how that would manifest itself exactly. I started out representing federal workers in D.C., so I got to travel across the country representing people who work for like the Bureau of Indian Affairs or work for the Treasury Department. I did trainings, mediations and arbitrations when they had labor issues. I really enjoyed their public service, understanding what they did and how they felt pretty passionately about the communities that they were in.
When I came back to Texas, I went to work at the attorney general’s office, mostly because I really wanted to learn how to litigate, and was in the tort litigation department. I did medical malpractice work. I represented the teaching hospitals across the state, like MD Anderson in Houston, UTMB in Galveston, the health science centers from Texas Tech and UT. I really enjoyed those people I represented because they worked for entities that they cared pretty deeply about as well, and I enjoyed that work.
I came to the city almost as a fluke. There was an opening for the chief of litigation, it was actually 2004. Public services just really always suited me. You want do something that makes the world a little bit better place, and this has been a great spot for me.
Lawbook: Tell us about the City of Austin’s legal department. How many attorneys do you have now, what you all do and how has it evolved over the years?
Morgan: I came as the chief of litigation in 2004, did a couple of other little things here and, became the deputy city attorney, and the city attorney in 2015. I would say during that time period our office hasn’t expanded a whole lot.
We have about a 106 people who work for the law department, and about 60 of those people are lawyers. We are divided into different subject matter. All of our folks, typically before pandemic, worked in city hall except for our prosecutors. We have about 11 lawyers in the criminal prosecution division. They all work at the municipal court, and they have some administrative staff who work with them.
The other lawyers are divided among employment group, our litigation group, our land use group, municipal operations, which is sort of the quintessential governmental functions that we do with finances, bond work, housing. … We have a utility and regulatory group because we have Austin Energy, the water utility and the airport — highly regulated entities. We also have our land use and real estate group.
We have a … public information group. They’re kind of the filter for all the public information requests that come through the city, and then we send them out to the various departments to gather information. So it’s a warehouse for that information.
Lawbook: You mentioned the lawyers for utilities, which is different from Houston and Dallas because Austin owns the utilities.
Morgan: I was going to say Dallas, the airport is independent. We actually wholly own the airport. So it’s a little bit different, but … having the utility is really a terrific asset for the people in Austin, and it’s written into our charter that the city council could not decide to get rid of it. It would have to be a vote of the people, and that has been very good. I think our rates are better, and it’s a really positive benefit for the city of Austin to have that.
Lawbook: Did your office make any substantial changes in how you operated during the pandemic that stuck post pandemic?
Morgan: It’s a great question because everything changed. It seemed like it’s a watershed moment in our world. March 13th, I can remember so vividly sitting with the mayor making the decision about canceling South by Southwest. Two days later, we had a meeting with everybody, the city manager and all the department directors, and we went home. We just told everybody in our office. Luckily, we were a very high-tech progressive city here. Everybody in the law department had a laptop computer and we literally said, “Come and get what you need and go home.” People were able to do that, and it was incredibly seamless from the outside. I know our technology people worked 24/7 to make sure that everything worked correctly.
We had telework. We allowed telework at the law department before the pandemic. We said you can have some flexibility in your schedules. You can have telework for projects. It was the one thing that people, when I would visit lawyers, really talked about liking and appreciating so much — this flexibility, the autonomy, the ability to schedule their own things and to be able to do it at home. That has done nothing but increase since the pandemic. We still are allowing telework, and we are less and less dependent on paper. People really love it. I’m in my office at City Hall, I like to come to work. But that’s just me though. So many of our people telework the majority of their time now.
Lawbook: What are the some of the biggest issues that your department deals with?
Morgan: The city has grown tremendously since when I started to now. The kind of work that we do hasn’t changed that much, but just the sheer net volume of work has grown as the city has grown, and I would say that the level of sophistication of the work has grown as well. They’re more complicated business deals that we do. The land use; there’s always been a tug and pull at the city of Austin over land use deals because we happen to live in a really beautiful geographic area with sensitive environmental things that are here.
When I first got here, there could be conflict from time to time between the environmental community and the developer community. And the city’s always in the middle; you know, we’re either granting or not granting permits and we are growing. I think in the latter years, that tug and pull has shifted a little bit to more social justice issues — thinking about our land development, housing issues for people, affordability, how we develop as a city. People are really focused a whole lot more on what that means for everyday folks and how they can live or not afford to live and work and play in a city. So I think to me that’s been a real positive thing that there’s a light shining on those questions.
So our work is helpful to our city leaders, our council members, our executive management. So land use has really evolved. It’s always been a big part of the work, but it has evolved. Then, the volume [has evolved] because the city is bigger. We have more people who are in car wrecks, more people who are at slip and falls. If you think about the number of people who work for the city of Austin, it’s almost 16,000 people, a whole lot of those people drive. If you got a lot of people driving, you’re going to have car-wreck cases.
Same is true with the cases that people hear about more in the news or people write about with our police officers. Certainly after the summer of 2020. We had a high volume of cases that came out of the social justice protests, and we still have those cases going on.
Lawbook: With the growth in the city, has that affected bond issues and municipal bond work?
Morgan: The bond work has definitely grown because we have issued so many bonds. Now we hire outside counsel for bond work. We have in-house lawyers who work with and manage our outside counsel, but bond counsel are always somebody we hire outside for such a specialty area. Just because you’re building so much more, our contract lawyers, our transactional lawyers, our construction lawyers are definitely feeling that work.
Lawbook: What are some examples of how you work with your colleagues in other Texas cities?
Morgan: We constantly are asking about what are you all doing about your homeless population, how are you handling it? And so you’ll see similar kind of strategies. Can you finance hotels in order to use those for people who are unhoused? How do you do that funding? What steps do you take?
Short-term rentals — that’s a big issue across the country. Do you regulate? How do you regulate? How do you operate them?
Billboard regulation. I’m really proud that we had a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court last year, and first time since I’ve been here where the City of Austin was the party to go to the United States Supreme Court, but it was an issue that was important to cities across the country about how do you regulate billboards.
Lawbook: The Legislature is in session and so what issues are you keeping your eye on?
Morgan: We work really closely with our intergovernmental relations office, and we analyze a lot of the bills. We look at all the bills that are filed, there are like maybe 2000 bills that affect a city. So, it’s a huge number. We work with our substantive departments and the intergovernmental relations office to analyze those bills, and figure out what will affect the city, if anything. It’s hard to know what they’re going to focus on at this juncture. Of course, we’ve had a lot of financial restrictions put on cities in the past, the way we do our budgets. We work within those constraints. I’m by nature a very positive person, and so I don’t dwell a lot on what negative is going to happen, but I do like to be prepared. I am a lawyer, and I think what we really want to make sure of is that we have the ability, and the Texas constitution allows us, to be a home rule city. A home rule city is one where our local leaders can make decisions for our community about what suits them best — its health, safety, anything. Anything that the state doesn’t restrict us from doing, then we can do. And I think our folks are focused on that and want to make sure that we retain those abilities.
Lawbook: Austin’s unique also — not only is it a large city, but it’s the state’s capital. How does that affect the work that you do?
Morgan: Actually it takes a quite a bit of time, because the Legislature does want to hear from people in the city. We want to make sure that people know the issue and are able to [make it] up there. The traffic is terrible. We have more people in town because of the legislative session, and so that’s, you know the volume of that, and then there are 2,000 bills all of a sudden. You have 2,000 things you’ve got to look at that you weren’t having to look at last month. It takes quite a bit of time. So there’s that. But we have our delegation and we are happy with the work that they put forward. It’s a good relationship.
Lawbook: Typically for what types of work are you hiring outside counsel?
Morgan: We actually hire quite a number of outside lawyers. The three reasons we hire outside counsel are if we have a conflict, if there is an expertise that we don’t have in-house that we need somebody, or if we have just sheer workload, volume problems. On the conflict, that is typically in our police cases, if we have a situation where we have a police officer involved in an incident. Maybe a civil case is filed really early before the internal review of the police within the police department is finished, and we don’t know whether or not an officer is going to be disciplined, then we potentially have a conflict. So, we will hire outside lawyers to handle those cases. So that is the most common sort of conflict.
On the expertise issue, bond counsel is a good example of that. Sometimes there’ll be an interesting copyright question or a trademark issue, something doesn’t come up a whole lot — sometimes cybersecurity — where we have people who work in that area but may not have as much of an expertise as we need for a particular instance, and then we’ll hire outside counsel.
The third is just volume. A perfect example is we have 10 lawyers who do civil litigation full time and they’re always busy. Right now, two of those lawyers are out on parental leave.
Lawbook: When you are looking for outside counsel, what are the factors you consider?
Morgan: The things that we look at for outside counsel are expertise first and foremost, making sure they can do the area of the law we need them to do. Second is cost efficiency, making sure that we’re getting the best bang for the buck that we can for taxpayers. And the third is diversity. We are really proud we’ve been certified by the Mansfield Rule. Our goal is 50 percent of the outside lawyers that we hire, those teams, we consider underrepresented counsel for that. We try and have underrepresented counsel represent us not just [as a firm] but actually the lawyers working on our projects [who] fall into that category. So that’s really important to us, and we’re open to outside counsel from any place, from any firm.
I will say this is another thing from the pandemic. We realized that we don’t have to have just local folks, because so much of the work that we do now is on Zoom. … [E]ven if people aren’t in town, it’s not as much of a handicap as we would’ve thought it would’ve been in the past. So that’s actually widened our pipeline for people.
Lawbook: Is finding diversity for counsel challenging?
Morgan: It is a challenge sometimes. It’s something that we really work on and we work on it for our own office, because it’s so important to us to have people with lots of different perspectives. I mean diversity in every way, too. Like the beginning of the career. People who are very mature in their career. Different perspectives, different law schools. We’re down the street from the University of Texas, so we have a lot of people who come through our law clerk program. I think It’s a great place to work, but we’re trying always to diversify the folks who come in. And then for outside council, it is a struggle sometimes to find diversity within those big law firms.
Editor’s Note: The interview has been edited for clarity.