Sonia Carvalho has been city attorney for Yorba Linda, Azusa, Colton, Claremont and now Santa Ana
Published in 2014 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 17, 2014
Updated on February 3, 2014
Sonia Carvalho sounds as excited as a law school grad offered her first real job. “I feel energized again,” she says.
The Southern California native has been practicing municipal law at Best Best & Krieger for more than two decades. She’s also served as city attorney for several small and medium-sized cities, including Yorba Linda, Azusa and Colton. In April 2012, she went a step further: She was named city attorney of California’s 11th largest city, Santa Ana—the first woman named to this role. She also helped design the position.
Generally, cities either have their own in-house city attorney on staff or they contract services through a law firm. “Even though I’ve been a contract city attorney, I was always a little intrigued by the in-house city attorneys,” Carvalho says. So when the Santa Ana position came up, she pitched the idea of creating a hybrid position in which she would remain employed by Best Best & Krieger but fulfill all the duties of a full-time city attorney with an office in City Hall.
The plan appealed to the city, as it avoided health and retirement benefits and the possibility of severance pay, which had cost Santa Ana more than $142,000 when the previous city attorney left. For Carvalho, the benefits were clear as well: “I still get to do municipal law but I’ve been able to take a look at what the in-house operations are like and keep my job at the firm while I’m doing it.”
Carvalho spends much of her time at Santa Ana City Hall, while also shuttling between Best Best & Krieger and meetings in Claremont, where she remains city attorney. A master juggler, Carvalho supervises attorneys and staff in Santa Ana, holds regular meetings with council members, drafts ordinances and contracts, and deals with everything from negotiating land use for affordable housing to becoming an expert on sex offender laws.
“That’s what I love about my practice,” she says. “You come across so many different subjects: medical marijuana, public policy and ethics, elections, term limits. It’s constant learning.”