What’s the difference between “Law Department” and “Legal Department?”

Gird yourself to plunge to the deepest profundities of epistemology, etymology, philology, and psychology. The May 2005 issue of GC New York (pg. 13) intoned that the new general counsel of Computer Associates, Kenneth Handal, realized he needed to boost the morale of his dispirited charges. He re-christened the company’s “Legal Department” its “World-wide Law Department.” (The world-wide had to do with having all internationally-based lawyers report to him.)

Legal Department or Law Department – “legal” is an adjective, “law” a noun. The adjective drags around its darker cousin “illegal” but then too the noun lives in the shadow of “lawless.” Digging into the ancestors of the terms, “legal” comes from Latin legalis whereas “law” comes from Middle and Old English law, lagh and lagu.

At a loss how to split this hair, I googled the two terms: “law department” returned about 503,000 hits; “legal department returned about 576,000 hits so it is 15% more popular. (Searching for the either of the terms yielded 925,000 hits which confused but did not deter me.) Since I was on a roll, I searched “Office of General Counsel” (246,000 hits) and “Office of the General Counsel (177,000).

Based on all these considerations, I strongly recommend “Law Department” because it is easier to type.

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