What are Corporate Law Departments?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

Many companies, particularly large ones, keep lawyers on permanent staff to handle legal issues that may arise. These lawyers work in what is commonly known as the corporation’s law department. Corporate law departments range in size and breadth depending on the company’s needs. Some employ but one or two lawyers, while others staff full legal teams of litigators, researchers, paralegals, and support personnel. Lawyers who work in corporate law departments are known as in-house lawyers or attorneys, and are often hired based on their expertise in applying different laws and statutory structures to business dealings.

In-house attorneys focus their time and attention on their parent company’s legal concerns. Depending on the company, this can include everything from registering and protecting trademarks to answering legal complaints and ensuring that employee benefits comply with the local law. In many respects, lawyers in corporate law departments must be generalists: that is, they must be comfortable dealing with all sorts of challenges and problems.

One of the biggest benefits of corporate law departments is instant access to legal advice, and a working framework to ensure that certain business operations are executed properly. Corporate lawyers inside a company often act as advisers to the company’s board of directors. They help develop business plans that will not only comply with the law, but also make use of the law’s incentives in tax, intellectual property, and other areas. The most important job of lawyers in corporate legal departments is to anticipate legal issues for the company, and take action accordingly.

Lawyers who practice corporate law in law firms, by contrast, usually refine their practice to only one or two areas of knowledge. A corporate lawyer in a law firm might have expertise in instigating patent infringement lawsuits, for instance, or in defending federal tax audits. Unlike a lawyer in a corporate law department, a lawyer in private practice in the corporate law sector often handles one specific kind of case over and over again. He or she will have multiple clients, but will typically do the same sort of work for each one.

Corporate lawyers in private practice often collaborate with lawyers in a corporate law department. Companies with corporate law departments often hire outside counsel to handle complex, nuanced legal disputes. A company’s in-house lawyers can handle a lot of the preliminary filings and briefings in a dispute, but actual court representation and litigation is often done by an outside expert. The role of a lawyer in a corporate legal department is usually to keep things running smoothly on the inside, and to handle day-to-day legal challenges that arise.

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