Discovering TimesSelect NYTimes.com/Trial and an invitation to search all articles published in the New York Times since 1851, I dabbled in some historical digging. Choosing the earliest period, 1851 through 1900, I searched for “general counsel” and looked at many of the 476 hits. They referred quite often to railroad companies or were obituaries of former general counsel. Here was a railroad story, and all that was provided at no cost: “News Of The Railroads, John K. Cowen Elected President of the Baltimore and Ohio. He Will Take Charge At Once. Mr. Cowen Will Resign as General Counsel of the Company, and Also as Congressman — A Successful Lawyer,” Jan. 25, 1896, Page 15, 529 words. It was welcome to find an exception: “Looks Like A Rice Trust; But The General Counsel Of The Combination Says It Is Not,” Sept. 6, 1888, Page 1, 170 words.
I did learn that New York City had a law department 106 years ago: “The Law Department Of The Corporation; Reply of the Corporation Counsel to the Citizens’ Association,” Nov. 22, 1867, Page 2, 5097 words. And two years later: “The County Canvass; Opinion of the Corporation Counsel on the Question of Counting the Votes for Supervisor.” Nov. 27, 1869, Page 4, 433 words.
A search on references to “law department” during the period turned up 1,003, but most of them had to do with the forerunners of today’s law schools, e.g., the Law Department of Yale University. One of the few exceptions was a short-track railroad piece, “Appointed to Central’s Law Department,” Dec. 30, 1900, Page 24, 23 words.
“Legal department” fared even worse, with a mere 70 results. Here was one, and I include as much of the lead paragraph as TimesSelect shows: “Northern Pacific Lands,” Oct. 17, 1887, Page 1, 105 words — Bismarck, Dakota, Oct. 16.–The Northern Pacific, through Mr. Dudley, of the legal department, filed in the local land office lists of large numbers of lands in Minnesota, in lieu of which the selections made in this district were … “
To complete my exhumation of related articles, I searched for “in-house lawyer” and “corporate lawyer,” which dug up zero articles; “in-house counsel” unearthed one article; and “chief legal officer” three results.