Legal Counsel Job Description
A legal counsel is an attorney who provides advice, guidance, and representation for clients who include individuals, corporations, and organizations. This position can encompass a wide variety of roles, from providing one-on-one client representation in civil and criminal cases to leading a company or nonprofit organization’s legal team and supporting compliance and litigation efforts.
While a legal counsel can work from an independent practice, they can also work directly for an organization. In either case, the legal counsel provides oversight and direction for individual and organizational legal compliance, represents their client during litigation, and aids in complex legal decision-making and negotiations.
Legal Counsel Duties and Responsibilities
While the responsibilities of a legal counsel can depend on their area of practice, we identified several core duties that tend to carry over:
Provide Legal Guidance
One of the legal counsel’s most significant duties is providing advice and guidance to clients, whether they’re individuals or organizations. This can include general legal advice on best practices for compliance, input on business decisions and contract negotiations, and legal strategies for litigation and other legal activities.
The legal counsel represents clients at hearings and trials. Prior to the proceeding, the legal counsel gathers relevant information, sometimes requesting documents from other involved parties to build the client’s legal case. During trials, the legal counsel presents arguments to a judge or jury, while at a hearing the counsel may negotiate on their client’s behalf.
Conduct Legal Research
Legal research is another key duty of the legal counsel. They may consult previous case information to determine its relevance to their client’s current concerns or may locate information on specific laws pertaining to their client’s activities. In some cases, a legal counsel may conduct research based on their client’s specific questions in order to provide accurate and timely advice.
Draft Legal Correspondence
A legal counsel drafts documents related to their client’s activities, which can include statements, contracts, or agreements. In this aspect of the job, the legal counsel ensures that the agreements are readable and enforceable and that they represent their client’s best interests. They may also send letters on their client’s behalf, such sending as a cease and desist letter to a party infringing on the client’s copyright.
A legal counsel also ensures that their clients comply with laws and guidelines related to their business or other activities. While this largely relates to providing legal guidance and advice, the legal counsel also needs to anticipate changing laws and codes that their client may not be aware of and take action to ensure that the client does not violate these laws.
Legal Counsel Skills and Qualifications
Legal counsels provide advice, guidance, and representation to individual or institutional clients. Legal counsels need a juris doctor (J.D.) degree and to pass the bar exam in any state in which they intend to practice. They also need the following skills:
- Analytical skills – legal counsels must be highly analytical and able to examine the facts related to cases and contracts in order to develop a compelling legal argument in both criminal and civil matters
- Persuasion – in order to successfully represent their client’s stance and legal standing, legal counsels need excellent persuasion skills
- Judgement and reason – this role requires sound judgment and exceptional reasoning skills. A legal counsel needs to examine the evidence at hand and make decisions related to legal strategies and options
- Negotiation – legal counsels need strong negotiation skills, which can help with negotiating contracts, arriving at settlements in civil cases, and coming to an agreement about the terms of a plea deal
- Research skills – while preparing for a case or providing advice, a legal counsel frequently needs to conduct extensive research to learn about related cases and previous judgments that may have a bearing on the case at hand
- Communication skills – a legal counsel needs to effectively communicate both verbally (with clients, judges, or juries) and in written documents (such as legal summaries and statements)
Legal Counsel Education and Training
Because a legal counsel is a practicing lawyer, they need extensive education for this role. After completing a bachelor’s degree, which can be in pre-law or in a variety of other fields, they must pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and complete law school.
Law programs tend to take three years to complete on a full-time schedule and cover topics including contracts, constitutional law, and civil procedure. During law school, students decide on a specialization. Following law school, potential lawyers need to pass the bar exam to be able to practice in their state.
Legal Counsel Salary and Outlook
Although a legal counsel’s salary can depend largely upon their specialization and area of practice, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that lawyers earn a median annual salary of $119,250. Lawyers in the top 10 percent of earners make over $208,000 per year, while the lowest-paid 10 percent earn less than $57,430.
The BLS estimates that employment for lawyers will grow 8 percent by 2026, although it notes that some of a lawyer’s typical duties, such as document review, may be handled by paralegals and assistants as firms move to keep costs down, which could impact the availability of entry-level legal counsel roles.
We searched the web and found several resources if you’re interested in learning more about a career as a legal counsel:
American Bar Association – the ABA is the largest professional organization for lawyers in the United States providing opportunities to learn and connect with other legal professionals
Legal Risk Management for In-House Counsel and Managers: A Manager’s Guide to Legal and Corporate Risk Management – Bryan E. Hopkins examines the role of the legal counsel in corporate law
“Effective Assistance of Counsel” – this blog post explores the right to effective legal counsel in the American criminal justice system and what it means for lawyers and their clients
Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits – author Lesley Rosenthal explores the role of legal counsel for nonprofit organizations and provides advice for successfully representing nonprofits
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