Counsel is an ancient term for one’s legal advisers as a body (The accused did not have the benefit of counsel when he was interrogated) or for a single legal adviser (Maria acted as counsel to the federal government, for which she was made Queen’s Counsel).
A judge will address a Canadian barrister as Counsel (if not by name); in the US, it would more usually be counselor (with a single American L).
The OED says counsel is ‘rarely’ pluralised; ‘should never be’, in my view (and Fowler’s), but I see it.
As a job title, legal counsel is a redundancy. Just counsel (although investment counsel might disagree).
In US firms, many (typically grey-haired) professionals are described as being of counsel – that is, still practising, but no longer a partner and too senior to be an associate. As a description, that’s fine – but as a job title it is not (How many Of Counsels does your firm have? Yuck.)
Counsel and council were historically to some extent interchangeable; over time, council came to mean a board or assembly and its members councillors (Privy Councillors, municipal councillors) – although the members of such a group could also be one’s counsellors if they offered advice, whether legal or general.
Thanks and a request
Since publishing Guthrie’s Guide to Better Legal Writing, I’ve received many comments and suggestions from readers. Thanks!
I’ve used a lot of them in these post-book blog posts, and I hope they’ll find their way into a second edition of the Guide (that’s a hint, Irwin Law!)
Until that time, I’d like to acknowledge these readers in particular: Matt Aleksic, Ari Blicker, Jim Frank, Matthew Helfand, Anne Marie Melvie, James Reed, Angela Swan, Douglas Tsoi and Lionel Tupman.
If there are things I haven’t covered that you’d like me to, drop me a line on Linkedin or at the e-mail address given in the front matter of my book. I also check the comments here at Slaw Tips.