Exploring the Role of Federal Managers When Obtaining Legal Advice from Offices of the General Counsel
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Managers in federal executive branch agencies administer public programs and policies in a complex legal environment. To assist managers, each agency has an organization that is responsible for providing them legal advice, typically called an "Office of the General Counsel" (OGC). Existing literature from public administration and administrative law has addressed, to varying degrees, what OGC lawyers do or ought to do, but has primarily focused on providing legal advice, not obtaining it. This discrete literature is disconnected from major streams in public administration. The purpose of this study was to update and extend the literature by exploring managers' and lawyers' perceptions of the role of managers as advisees of OGC. This study made managers the focal point of exploration and used concepts from organizational role theory to clarify the term "role" and highlight the structural and interactional elements of the manager's part in the manager-lawyer relationship. Four research questions guided this study by inquiring about the expectations managers and lawyers have regarding: (1) the organizational arrangement for obtaining legal advice; (2) decision making in the context of obtaining legal advice; (3) the closeness of their working relationship; and (4) being a "client" of OGC in the context of obtaining legal advice. Data were collected from in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with 20 practitioners (14 managers; six lawyers). This study found that managers and lawyers preferred to remain separate from each other in the agency because of the expectation that managers obtain and lawyers provide objective legal advice. Regarding decision making, managers and lawyers expected managers to make decisions in the sense of seeking guidance from OGC rather than permission, being comfortable questioning legal advice, and choosing among options and alternatives; although, lawyers indicated some managers prefer not making decisions. The expectation of making decisions in the sense of choosing whether to follow legal advice remains contested among managers; among lawyers, they expect managers to consider legal advice and decide whether to follow it. Managers and lawyers expected to have a close working relationship marked by assistance with formulating legal questions and full disclosure of information. As for expectations associated with being a "client" of OGC, managers' and lawyers' expectations diverged on what being a "client" of OGC entails. Managers viewed themselves as clients, but associated the term "client" with customer service; lawyers, on the other hand, viewed managers as clients provided their interests are aligned with the agency's interests. Beyond exploring the role of managers when obtaining legal advice, this study's focus on the interaction between managers and lawyers within a federal agency suggests a way connecting public law more directly to public management, as well as extending insights from governance to activities inside an agency.
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