What's in a name?

What's in a name?
As an articling or summer student, you may find yourself working long days and late nights with your sleeves rolled up alongside a variety of legal professionals. Apart from the junior partner or paralegals you may be assigned to work with on a regular basis, there is a whole ecosystem of people that help make a law firm or corporate legal department run smoothly day to day. Here’s a sampling of the people you may encounter in your days as a student.
Law Firm

Chairman/chairwoman: This is the law firm visionary. Much like the president and chief executive officer of a company, this person is responsible for providing leadership, strategy, and direction to the firm. There may be one in each regional or international office of the firm and they are the governing face of the firm. They are less involved in daily operations because they are more focused on strategy and business development of new clients in areas such as global initiatives. This person may still oversee a practice area in a critical role within the firm handling top clients. They follow the legal trends and decide what needs to be addressed from a strategy perspective whether it’s to open a new office or practice group expansion. They may also be responsible for spearheading mergers or contemplating international expansion.

Managing director: Think of this person as the one responsible for managing all non-practising matters at the law firm but may in fact be a trained lawyer. In some firms this person is close to being a chief operating officer. They may also be involved in business development and marketing. If you’re an articling student you may want to get in the good books of this person as they may be the one who determines if you get hired back.

Managing partner: This is the highest formal job title given to a senior partner in charge of a firm’s overall practice, management, and day-to-day operations. Similarly, this “Grand Poobah or Poobess” manages the firm, its lawyers, their clients, and everything that comes with that large portfolio including many business aspects of running the firm. Depending on the size of the firm, they may also be responsible for a practice area and act as lead lawyer on a number of critical files. This person handles internal partnership issues, discipline matters, brings in new partners, makes major staffing decisions, and handles banking relationships. They are usually the head of the executive committee at the firm if there is one.

Partner: Depending on the size of the firm, it can take on average about seven to 10 years to reach partner status these days at a big firm. In small firms it could be as little as four years.

Equity partner: Equity means this lawyer has the potential to share in the profits of the firm. It can depend on the firm, but in many cases all partners are equity partners.

Non-equity/income partner: This person is a partner in name but receives a set salary, and has the right to participate in certain decisions but can write off certain expenses. Their salary is not tied directly to a share of the firm’s profit.

Associate: Duties vary from firm to firm but an associate is a lawyer who has finished articling and is expected to work on a range of files and subject areas. New associates are often paired up with a junior partner or senior associate to work on files but some associates get to tackle files on their own right from the get-go.

Of counsel: Many large and mid-size firms have lawyers with the title “of counsel” or “special counsel” which differs from partner or associate. They work for the firm, or are still associated with the firm, perhaps as an independent contractor but are not part of day-to-day structure. They may be fulfilling other external responsibilities, such as a political appointment or secondment to a corporation. They may also be a retired partner who chooses to maintain ties to the firm and work on special projects such as international law, or in specialty areas.

Director of knowledge management/project management: This person, often a technology guru of sorts, is often a lawyer at the firm who typically has responsibility for providing guidance on the precedent database, knowledge transfer, and guides how research information is managed and shared in the firm. They also provide guidance on process management in litigation files, etc.

Reference/law librarian: The library plays a major role in the knowledge management within the firm. The librarian provides services to lawyers, students, law clerks, and assistants. While law librarians can be a huge source of assistance to students, many firms will encourage students to work directly with the lawyers at the firm if they want to improve their research skills.

Law clerks: These individuals are paralegals who can take the lead on some files, or assist on others. They can be extremely helpful to a student and if a file is within their realm of expertise they can be incredibly valuable. Depending on the firm, they may prefer you ask the lawyers for help first as it’s the lawyer’s job to teach students.


For in-house lawyers, roles are generally defined by the size of the organization, its core business, risk tolerance, size of the department, and whether it has multiple divisions or locations. Small in-house law departments tend to have less distinction between titles.

General counsel: Usually the top lawyer for the company (unless the company has divisional general counsel), this person has a supervisory role over all lawyers in the company. The role includes management of the department, department strategy, and budget. The GC aligns the legal department with the overall corporate strategy, works with other business unit executives, and oversees major matters.

Chief legal officer: Depending on the organization, this is essentially a general counsel with a more executive-focused title that puts him or her at the board table in an organization more focused on a c-suite structure.

Corporate secretary: This position is sometimes combined with the job of general counsel. The corporate secretary provides advice on corporate governance issues, particularly related to the re-election of directors and other shareholder action taken at annual meetings. The corporate secretary is a senior corporate officer with wide-ranging responsibilities, who serves as a focal point for communication with and between the board of directors, senior management, and the company’s shareholders. They are often a confidante to the chief executive officer, members of the board, and other members of senior management, especially on corporate governance matters.

Senior legal counsel/legal counsel: Legal counsel is typically a more junior position and is usually someone with less experience working in-house. In some organizations “senior” legal counsel may simply mean more longevity either at the organizational level or in terms of when they were called to the bar. Senior counsel take on more complex files and generally have more responsibility. They may or may not have a formal supervisory role over the junior or management functions. Both generally perform work for the organization in a functional role — for example, defined areas (i.e. based on expertise, experience, etc.), such as litigation.

Free newsletter

The Canadian Legal Newswire is a FREE weekly newsletter that keeps you up to date on news and analysis about the Canadian legal scene. A separate InHouse Edition is delivered every two weeks, providing targeted news and information of interest to in-house counsel.

Please complete the form below to receive the weekly Canadian Legal Newswire and/or the Canadian Inhouse Legal Newswire.

Recent articles & video

Daphne Dumont to receive CBA’s Cecilia I. Johnstone award

Quebec taking harsh line on cannabis edibles

Will the conversation catalyzed by the Law Society of Ontario mean the end of articling?

Copyright law: set for an overhaul?

Corporate Counsel Survey 2019 closes on Monday, Aug 26

When Legal Aid is a political prop, Access to justice suffers

Most Read Articles

Canadian Judicial Council seeks leave to SCC in Girouard case

The Ontario government is destroying university legal clinics

Quebec taking harsh line on cannabis edibles

Will the conversation catalyzed by the Law Society of Ontario mean the end of articling?