The New York City Law Department grew out of an old English institution known as the Recorder. The first Recorder was appointed by New York's Royal Governor in 1683, and served as a both a political and legal counselor to the City government.
Early in the nineteenth century, the City Council began hiring private attorneys to oversee the City's legal matters. The use of private attorneys eventually proved unworkable, and the 1849 City Charter established an executive position known as the Corporation Counsel who, with a small staff, served the legal needs of the City. The title "Corporation Counsel" comes from the status of the City as a "municipal corporation."
The Law Department has always been on the cutting edge of the legal profession. The City has argued more than 60 times before the United States Supreme Court including landmark cases such as Ward v. Rock Against Racism, which established the standard for time, place, and manner restrictions on the exercise of free speech; Penn Central v. City of New York, which upheld the power of governments to restrict development of designated landmarks; and Goldberg v. Kelly, which established the standard of due process required prior to the deprivation of government benefits.