Middle English. con-, counseil, -ail, -ayl, a. Old French. conseil, cunseil, in AFr. counseil (= Pr. conselh, Cat. consell, Sp. consejo, Pg. conseglo, It. consiglio):L. consilium consultation, plan decided on as the result of consultation, advice, counsel, advising faculty, prudence; a deliberating body, a council of state, war, etc.; a counsellor: a word of the same type as colloquium, connubium, etc., f. consulre to deliberate, etc., f. con- together + *sal- a root found also in consul, consulto, and prob. cognate with Skr. sar- to go. The various senses are retained in French; but in English, those meaning a deliberating body are now written COUNCIL, by confusion with Latin concilium.
- I. 1. a. Interchange of opinions on a matter of procedure; consultation, deliberation. to take counsel: to consult, deliberate.
- b. Conference, conversation. Obs. rare.
- 2. a. Opinion as to what ought to be done given as the result of consultation; aid or instruction for directing the judgement; advice, direction.
- b. spec. in Theology. One of the advisory declarations of Christ and the apostles, in mediæval theology reckoned as twelve, which are considered not to be universally binding, but to be given as a means of attaining greater moral perfection; so counsel of perfection, esp. in reference to Matthew. xix. 21; also transf.; evangelical counsels, the three obligations of voluntary poverty, chastity, and obedience to a religious superior (see quot. 1875).
- c. Phr. counsel of despair.
- 3. The faculty of counselling or advising; judgement; prudence; sagacity in the devising of plans. Obs. or arch.
- 5. a. A private or secret purpose, design, or opinion. Obs. (exc. as in d).
- b. A matter of confidence or secrecy; a secret; a confidence. Obs. (exc. as in d).
- c. in counsel: in private, in confidence. Obs.
- d. to keep or hold (a matter) counsel (later in counsel): to keep it secret (obs.). to keep (hold) counsel: to observe secrecy (arch. and dial.). to keep any one's counsel: to keep a secret which he has committed to one (arch. or obs.). to keep one's (own) counsel: to keep one's own secret, be reticent about one's intentions or opinions.
- 6. of counsel with or for (a person), in, with or to (an act, etc.): in the counsels, confidence, or secrets of; one of the advisers of (a person); privy to (an act). Obs.
- II. 7. a. An assembly or body of advisers. Obs. Now COUNCIL 4 and 6 q.v.
- b. A single person with whom one consults or advises; a counsellor. Obs.
- 8. a. A body of legal advisers, engaged in the direction or conduct of a cause. (Usually a collective plural, but sometimes treated as a numeral plural; formerly, in ‘to desire the benefit of counsel’, ‘to be allowed counsel’, etc., treated as a collective sing.: cf. quot. 1681.) (In this sense erroneously stated in many legal text-books to be ‘an abbreviation of counsellor’.)
- b. as sing. (rarely with pl. counsels): A single legal adviser; a counsellor-at-law, advocate, or barrister.
The legal system in England uses the term counsel as an approximate synonym for a barrister-at-law ', and may apply it to mean either a single person who pleads a cause, or collectively, the body of barristers engaged in a case. It seems uncertain as to whether the term also applies to a solicitor advocate. Some judges and lawyers apply the term interchangeably between both barristers and solicitor advocates.
The difference between "Barrister" and "Counsel" is subtle. "Barrister" is a professional title awarded by one of the four Inns of Court, and is used in a barrister's private, academic or professional capacity. "Counsel" is used to refer to a barrister who is instructed on a particular case. It is customary to use the third person when addressing a barrister instructed on a case: "Counsel is asked to advise" rather than "You are asked to advise".
The legal term counsellor, or, more fully, counsellor-at-law, became practically obsolete in England, but continued in use locally in Ireland as an equivalent to barrister, where a Senior Counsel (S.C.) is equivalent to the English Queen's Counsel (Q.C.)
In the United States of America, the term counselor-at-law designates, specifically, an attorney admitted to practice in all courts of law; but as the United States legal system makes no formal division of the legal profession into two classes, as in England, most US citizens use the term loosely in the same sense as lawyer, meaning one who versed in (or practising) law.
In the United States and Canada, many large and midsize law firms have lawyers with the job title of "counsel", "special counsel" or "of counsel". These lawyers are employees of the firm like associates, although some firms have an independent contractor relationship with them. But unlike associates, and more like partners, they generally have their own clients, manage their own files, and supervise associates.