A Litigator at Heart Finds a Great Fit Working for a County

Karen, a white woman with dark brown hair, wears a pale blue shirt, a black blazer and a pearl necklace.By Karen Richards

I have always had an interest in public service. My journey to the New Hanover County Attorney’s Office started as a staff attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina. From there, I served stints as an assistant district attorney and as a staff attorney for New Hanover County Department of Social Services (DSS) before joining the County Attorney’s Office.

I have been a litigator for my entire career. My path crossed with former New Hanover Deputy County Attorney Sharon Huffman while I was with DSS, and I was intrigued. I was not sure what a county attorney’s role entailed, so I made a cold call to New Hanover County Attorney Wanda Copley, who spent forty years in that position.

[As an aside: I strongly recommend satisfying your curiosity by reaching out to folks in a field you are interested in, even if you are not looking to make a move. Taking time to connect with someone in a role you’re unfamiliar with can totally change your career trajectory, as it did for me.]

Not every County Attorney’s Office has the same organizational makeup. Some counties contract out all of their representation, some counties contract out part of their representation and retain other parts, and some counties incorporate the attorneys who represent the Department of Social Services into the County Attorney’s Office. New Hanover County does not incorporate the Social Services attorneys into the County Attorney’s Office. New Hanover also retains outside counsel for certain types of matters.

New Hanover County has three attorneys in the County Attorney’s Office – the County Attorney, a Senior Deputy Attorney, and a Deputy Attorney. Between the three of us, we advise county offices and departments, which provide services for approximately 235,000 county residents. We work as a single unit, where if the attorney who normally handles an assigned area is not available, one of the other two will provide guidance.

I advise the Sheriff’s Office, Tax Department, Planning Department, and handle some Building Safety matters. I have been able to nurture my passion for litigation in this role, and I handle litigation matters that range from returning weapons previously surrendered under 50b orders, to handling a dangerous dog appeal in Superior Court (yup, those can be appealed to Superior Court), to defending tax assessments in front of the North Carolina Department of Revenue Property Tax Commission. I have also learned to be more of a generalist by learning the intricacies of any number of practice areas.

A typical day might include handling a building condemnation hearing, responding to questions about the interpretation of a statute, developing or refining policy for a department and handling public records requests. I advise our Planning Board, meaning I attend their board meetings and answer any legal or procedural questions they may have. I attend our Board of Commissioner meetings to assist the County Attorney in case any of the Planning Board matters need to be addressed. I advise our Board of Adjustment and represent our planning staff if their interpretation of an ordinance is disputed. As Deputy County Attorney, I am exposed to numerous and diverse areas of law.

Additionally, I get to have an inside view of how the county works and the position of the county on local concerns, and I learn areas of the law that I might never have considered interesting if I had not landed in this role.

It has been an amazing journey, and I am so happy that I ventured into this practice area.