Legal Counsel vs Lawyer – What’s the Difference?


What is the difference between a legal counsel and a lawyer?


A Legal Counsel is a person employed by an organisation/corporation and works “in-house”, whilst a lawyer is employed by a law firm. Legal Counsel will only provide legal advice to their employer, while a lawyer is engaged by various clients to provide a range of legal services and advice.


What does in-house legal counsel do?


Risk Management and Advisory


Historically, individuals employed as legal counsel would manage the legal risk of the business. The scope of a legal counsels work has now expanded considerably into an advisory capacity, where they advise key stakeholders of the business about solutions to solve a range of commercial problems that the business is facing.

Legal counsel is tasked with the responsibility of having to understand the strategic direction of the business and advising as to the risk the business may face. This key advisory function that legal counsel now plays means that they are often key individuals within the business and play a crucial role in the strategic planning and overall direction of the business.



What should a lawyer expect when transitioning from a lawyer to legal counsel?


Transitioning from a specialist lawyer to a generalist in-house legal counsel can be challenging.


Generally, a lawyer will have decided to specialise in a particular practice area as they advance through their career. By the time a lawyer hits two years’ post admission experience, they would generally have a practice area they’ve decided to focus on.

It’s often a point of contention as to whether it’s better to specialise or remain more generalist, some lawyers will argue that a generalist approach allows for a better overall client experience, whilst others will argue that specialising in a particular practice area leads to more comprehensive knowledge, allowing the lawyer to provide more accurate specialist advice.

Lawyers’ that decide to specialise whilst in private practice and later decide to transition into an in-house legal counsel role will often find the transition challenging. This is because in-house legal counsel is often more generalist, they need to be able to provide advice to the business that covers a range of practice areas. They could be covering legal practice areas such as employment law, contract law, corporate law, litigation and debt recovery, Intellectual property and trademarks and more. As a lawyer, you most probably will not have had the same level of generalist experience, so it will take longer to adjust to the broader range of practice areas.


What can legal counsel do to demonstrate their value?

  • Establish and maintain strong relationships with external legal advisors – working efficiently with external lawyers leads to less overall expenditure on the companies legal services.
  • Move beyond the law – it’s essential that legal counsel has an exceptional commercial understanding of the business. Demonstrating to key company stakeholders that you understand how your legal advice (within its context) affects the bottom line is essential.


What are the benefits of going in-house?


No more billing! Well, sort of!

The bain of most lawyers existence is time recording and achieving billing targets. You’ll be happy to know that the majority of legal counsel is not required to hit billing targets, however, some are required to time record as a way to measure productivity and efficiency standards.



As a private practice lawyer, you’ll ride the waves of being extremely busy when an influx of new matters are engaged then into quieter times where there is less work on the books. With in-house legal counsel, the work is a lot more stable. You’ll have a wider variety of more generalist work with often drastically reduced deadlines for completion.



Generally, there is a lot more flexibility working as in-house legal counsel, this is mainly because there are no billable hours to achieve. There’s often no requirement or necessity to work after hours or on weekends.


No Business Development

You’ll be pleased to know (unless you have a passion for sales and marketing) that in-house legal counsel is generally not required to facilitate any form of business development, once again, mainly because you don’t need clients and you don’t need to achieve billable targets.


What’s the salary like?

At the more junior and intermediate levels, the pay can be the same or actually better than in private practice. But generally, by comparison, a senior private practice lawyer will earn more, this is because over time a senior lawyer will establish a client base which leads to profit whilst a senior in-house legal counsel has no ability to build a substantial client base. However, there’s always a good angle for a salary bump being an in-house lawyer by delivering cost savings to the business.



Transitioning to an in-house legal counsel has some great benefits!

You’ll find the work varied and most enjoyable, the lack of time recording and billing targets a definite bonus and the inclusiveness that’s derived from being heavily involved with the strategic direction of the business is a great motivator allowing you to feel involved and a valued contributing member to the team.

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