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What is a Counsel?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A counsel can effectively refer to a number of different things, even within the narrow confines of legal meaning, and the exact meaning typically depends on the context in which it is used. In the United States (US), it is typically used to refer to either a lawyer or the advice that the lawyer gives to a client. This type of usage is quite common and the context of the phrase is usually used to distinguish which meaning is being referred to in any given phrase. A counsel in the United Kingdom (UK) typically refers to a barrister, or a body of barristers, and is commonly used in both the US and UK to refer to lawyers directly in third-person.

The two most common uses of the term “counsel” in American English are in reference either to a lawyer or to the advice that a lawyer or legal counselor has given to someone. In a court of law, a lawyer may be referred to as “counsel” and the term is often used to directly refer to a lawyer in the third-person. Rather than use the common second-person terminology of “you” to speak directly to a person, in a courtroom the judge or other legal professional may speak directly to a lawyer but refer to “counsel.”

Similarly, the term is often used to refer to any sort of legal advice that a lawyer has provided to a person. In this sense of the word, it is easy to distinguish from the other common usage since it is used to refer to an idea rather than a person. This usage of “counsel” as advice indicates the idea that a lawyer can be a legal counselor who provides information and knowledge on legal matters. In this sense the term “counselor at law” is often used much like “attorney at law” and refers to a lawyer.

The term “counsel” in the UK is used much more specifically and refers only to barristers authorized to have audience in courts of any level. Solicitors, who generally can only argue law in lower courts, are typically not referred to in this way. There does seem to be some exception to this, however, in that some judges may sometimes refer to solicitor-advocates as “counsel.” Solicitor-advocates are solicitors who have earned the right to have audience in higher courts, though they are still not barristers. Despite the separation of the English legal system into two levels of lawyers, the term is similarly used in reference to barristers in the third-person as it is used in the US.

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Discussion Comments
By JackWhack — On Aug 08, 2012

I have always used the word “counsel” as a verb. I had a lot of counseling from my guidance counselor in high school, but I don't think anyone ever referred to her as the “counsel.”

The advice that a school counselor can give a student can make all the difference. I was seriously considering dropping out of school, because I didn't fit in and I dreaded coming there every day. My counselor talked me out of it and helped me map out a plan for the future.

By Kristee — On Aug 07, 2012

I have heard “counsel” and “lawyer” used synonymously on television shows before. I watch a lot of shows about crime and justice, so I have seen plenty of courtroom action, even though most of it was scripted.

It makes sense to me that a lawyer is often called a counsel. After all, offering advice is their job description. What better term could there be for them?

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