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Public Law and Public Administration

This article by Gini Hamilton originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the North Carolina State Bar Journal.


Why would an experienced lawyer return to graduate school to study public administration? And why would a city manager need to study law?

According to UNC School of Government faculty members, 50 percent of whom are lawyers, the two disciplines can be interdependent.

Mike Silver (shown left), earned his JD from NC Central University in 2007. In 2013, he returned to graduate school in the online format of the UNC Master of Public Administration (MPA) program while he was serving as assistant district attorney in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Silver is now deputy commissioner and manager of the Winston-Salem office of the North Carolina Industrial Commission.

“As an attorney, people think that you have a certain skill set that you might not possess,” said Silver. “You get promotions because you’ve done well in the courtroom, but doing well in the courtroom does not necessarily translate to being a manager or a leader who can sit on boards. The MPA program gave me a chance to learn many of the leadership skills that people thought I had but that I didn’t actually possess coming out of law school.”

What is public administration?

Studying public administration is useful for individuals who seek careers in local, state, or federal government and in nonprofit or other organizations that support the public interest. The UNC MPA program focuses on preparing students for leadership roles in the career path of their choice, emphasizing skills needed to collaborate, seek innovative and pragmatic solutions to problems, and inspire others to create change. Increasingly, students who study public administration seek dual degrees in law, social work, or information and library science. “The way I manage the people whom I supervise has changed drastically since I’ve been in the MPA program,” said Silver. “And the strategies that I’m learning in school and demonstrating on a daily basis are being adopted by other people in my office.”

Many attorneys who do not seek an additional graduate degree also benefit from learning more about public administration. Those who do business with government on behalf of clients or who serve as attorneys for city or county governments need to understand the inner workings of local government in the same way they would need to know the business model of a corporate client in order to be successful. Many of these attorneys supplement their legal training with individual courses at the School of Government.

On the other hand, the topic of law is considered a required competency for students in the UNC MPA program who aspire to be public service leaders.

“If you’re choosing to work in government, you need to be able to make legal decisions for the pubic good,” said School faculty member Charles Szypszak, who teaches the public administration law course. Szypszak, who earned a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law and practiced law in New Hampshire before joining the School of Government, also teaches and provides counsel on real property registration and conveyance laws to North Carolina public officials as well as to national and international educational institutions and organizations.

What is included in a law for public administration course?

Obviously a single law course, however rigorous, does not substitute for a law school education. But it teaches future public leaders that they must take responsibility for the laws they will be required to follow in their work and how to recognize when an issue appears that needs legal attention. The MPA law course exposes students to the laws they are likely to encounter in their public service careers.

MPA graduate Eric Petersen has served as Hillsborough, North Carolina’s, town manager since 1997. Previously, he was manager for the towns of Tabor City and Topsail Beach, where he also served as incident commander during evacuations and hurricanes. Petersen says the law course he took in the MPA program has been put to use “from the first day on my first job and every job since then.”

“Because of the law course, I know enough to recognize the little warning flags,” says Petersen. “I may need to look up a bidding statute, for instance, or something more complex, meet with my city attorney, or call someone at the School of Government for clarification. Zoning and development situations, personnel issues—dealing with the law around these and other topics—are a huge part of what local government managers do. “I am not bashful at all about calling my city attorney,” he says. “A good city attorney is a city manager’s best friend.”

The Master of Public Administration program at UNC-Chapel Hill is offered in two formats. The on-campus format offers the option of dual degrees with other UNC programs. The online format, known as MPA@UNC, is designed for working professionals and others who need the flexibility of an online program. For more information, visit


Published December 8, 2015