When you consult a lawyer, are you seeking legal counsel or legal council? The answer depends on what you’re looking for — and how many lawyers you’re asking. Though counsel and council have the same origin and pronunciation, they’re not the same word at all.
The word counsel refers to advice or help, both legal and otherwise. It can also describe an attorney who provides advice or representation in a legal proceeding. Derived from Latin, like many legal terms, counsel comes from consilium (meaning “consultation, opinion”) and has a root in the 13th-century Old French counseil, which led to the English consult.
Counsel functions as a noun and as a verb. When used as a noun, counsel refers to “advice provided to someone.” For example:
- A company that has its own legal department has in-house legal counsel.
- A non-employee attorney can serve as outside counsel for a client organization.
- A person who has expertise in a topic can provide counsel to others.
When used as a verb, the word counsel refers to “the act of advising.” Alternate forms include counseled (past tense) and counseling (present participle) in American English. In British English, the alternate forms have two l's (counselled and counselling). Examples of counsel as a verb include:
- A manager might need to counsel employees who are having performance issues.
- An ergonomics consultant provided counseling to our manager on how to best structure work areas.
- Monica felt more confident in her job after being counseled by an expert.
The word council is a collective noun for a formal group of people who collaborate on issues. It comes from the Latin concilium, like counsel, but with a meaning of “assembly.” It also comes from the 13th-century Old French word concile, meaning “meeting.” Traditionally and today, councils resolve problems, make decisions and/or establish rules and regulations.
Unlike counsel, council functions only as a noun. For example:
- Municipalities have city councils as part of their governmental structure.
- Ava is running for president of the student council.
- The church council voted to allocate a portion of next year's budget to a mission trip.
- My college professor is running for a seat on the city council.
- I volunteered to serve on my company's employee safety council.
There may even be times when both counsel and council appear in the same sentence. For example:
- The city council members consulted with legal counsel regarding the new zoning regulations.
- The alumni council hired a fundraising firm to counsel them on how to implement a new endowment.
- As a member of the citizen's safety council, I am sometimes called upon to counsel public safety officials on resident concerns.
- I'd like to seek counsel from past advisory council members before agreeing to participate with the group.
- My law partner serves as counsel for Mr. Smith, who was just elected to serve as president of the town council.
Another way people confuse counsel and council is with the homophones counselor and councilor. Each word describes a person, but they have different roles.
- counselor - someone who counsels (such as a school counselor)
- councilor - someone on a council (such as a city councilor)
When speaking, the difference between counselor and councilor (and counsel and council) may be slight or nonexistent. But when writing, it’s important to spell each word correctly, as their close meanings may result in confusion for the reader.