What is a legal counsel? (Definition, duties and skills)

Updated 19 September 2023

Legal aspects play a role in a variety of industries, as governmental agencies require businesses to comply with different regulations and standards. To ensure legal compliance or settle disputes, companies frequently create legal departments and hire professionals with relevant skills and experience. Understanding the function of a legal counsel can help you decide if you want to become one and determine if you have the key qualifications. In this article, we define what a legal counsel is, explain the difference between legal counsellors and lawyers, list responsibilities, outline essential skills and describe the work environment for this role.

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What is a legal counsel?

A legal counsel, or legal counsellor, is a professional with a qualification in the field of law who works for a company. As they may provide legal assistance to organisations that operate in a wide variety of industries, they frequently specialise in a particular field. This can help a legal counsellor focus on a specific branch of law and provide high-quality services. For example, retail companies may hire legal counsellors with extensive knowledge about consumer protection legislation to ensure that the company complies with these regulations.

Depending on the size and scope of the company, these professionals may provide these services independently or collaborate with a team of other specialists. For example, large companies tend to create legal departments and hire a team of legal counsellors with different fields of expertise, while smaller businesses may hire just one counsel who has relevant skills. Regardless of the company's size, these professionals are permanent staff members.

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What is the difference between legal counsellors and lawyers?

Legal counsellors and lawyers share many similarities, as both roles involve providing legal advice and representing clients in court. The main difference between these two professions is that they rely on different types of employment. Legal counsellors become permanent staff in the business entity they represent, while lawyers typically work as independent contractors or provide their services on behalf of a law firm.

Another difference between these professionals is that they may receive payment for their services differently. As legal counsellors have permanent employment, companies usually pay them a fixed salary. By contrast, lawyers typically bill clients individually and can experience a wide range of income. For example, the size of their payment may depend on the case's outcome. This can also mean that lawyers frequently have more risks and personal responsibility.

Related: What does a corporate lawyer do? (With requirements)

What does a legal counsellor do?

As these professionals help organisations that operate in different fields, their responsibilities may vary from one employer to another. For example, a legal counsellor that works for a technology company may frequently perform intellectual property work. Even though these professionals may specialise in different fields, there is several duties that most counsels perform. Here is a list of responsibilities that this role involves:

  • communicating with key stakeholders

  • negotiating with involved parties to arrange settlements

  • conducting research and filing lawsuits to settle legal disputes

  • presenting their client's case in court

  • creating reports and managing legal documentation

  • ensuring that their employer complies with industry-specific regulations and standards

  • interpreting laws to advise the company's management

  • providing legal support for new projects or products

  • evaluating risks and conducting regulatory investigations

  • providing legal support in case of business failure

  • collaborating with other professionals in the legal department

  • helping the organisation file taxes following relevant legislation

  • helping the business protect intellectual property

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Legal counsellor skills

As legal counselling involves diverse responsibilities, professionals within this field rely on a broad range of both hard and soft skills. Hard skills may help counsels work with documents or research information, while soft skills can help them negotiate with other parties or collaborate with colleagues. Knowing the most common counselling skills can help you assess your abilities to determine areas that require improvement. You can also use this information to seek skill-specific training to gain a competitive edge and secure your desired job. Here are six skills that legal counsellors have:

1. Risk management skills

Legal counsellors are responsible for ensuring that the company complies with relevant legislation. Risk management skills may help you manage both legal risks and compliance risks. You may prevent an organisation's violation of external laws by constantly monitoring its activity and researching information about new laws and regulations. Compliance risks occur when a business or a department fails to follow its internal standards. Risk management skills may not only help you reduce the probability of these risks occurring but also provide the company with advice if it doesn't have the resources to fulfil legal obligations.

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2. Technical knowledge

Technical knowledge and skills play a considerable role in determining the effectiveness of an employee in the legal field. This field may require extensive knowledge about relevant legislation and cases to provide your employer with advice. Technical knowledge is particularly important for counsellors who represent their clients in court. In addition, legislation constantly transforms as the government introduces new laws or adjusts existing regulations. Therefore, you may benefit from constantly researching information about these changes and keeping your technical knowledge up to date.

In-depth knowledge about business ethics can help legal counsellors negotiate with interested parties and achieve negotiation goals. If you want to work in the legal department of a large company, you may also benefit from these skills when collaborating with your colleagues on complex tasks.

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3. Communication skills

Counsellors also use their communication skills when providing advice, as they often reword complex legal concepts into information that individuals without a legal background can understand. Interpersonal skills, especially communication skills, are inseparable elements of this job. To provide clients with clear and concise advice, counsellors may use their presentation skills. As they may also communicate with key stakeholders and write comprehensive reports, both written and oral skills are relevant.

4. Human resource management

Even though some counselling positions may not require human resource management skills, you may benefit from them if you want to advance your career. As smaller companies may only have one legal counsel employee, they usually provide limited opportunities in terms of career growth. Consider searching for positions in medium-sized companies if you want to secure an upper-level position. Such roles frequently involve managing a team of legal specialists or even an entire legal department. You may use your human resource management skills to hire new employees, train them and lead a team to achieve the company's goals.

Related: What does a legal officer do? (With duties and key skills)

5. Attention to detail

Legal counsellors require exceptional attention to detail to complete their daily tasks, as they frequently read voluminous documents. They also work with legal documents such as contracts, which gain legal force once both sides sign them, requiring them to pay attention to details and check for accuracy to prevent any mistakes that may lead to financial loss or legal disputes. As a legal counsellor, this skill may help you find relevant information about a specific law or standard.

6. Research skills

Legal counsellors use their research skills to find the most recent information about specific regulations or laws. For example, if a company creates a new product, these professionals may research information about governmental requirements for the company to comply with. They may also determine if these products violate any intellectual property rights. Research skills may also help these specialists prepare materials to represent their clients in court or settle disputes during negotiations. As information is one of the most valuable assets in jurisprudence, the ability to find it is critical.

Work environment

The work environment for legal counsellors may differ depending on which industry they specialise in. Counsellors usually perform their duties in an office setting, although there may be opportunities for visiting other sites, such as when conducting negotiations. Their working conditions typically consist of full-time employment.


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