Legal Counsel

The term legal counsel refers to the services provided by a person who studies or practices law. Used interchangeably with attorney or lawyer, it also describes someone who gives legal advice or represents clients in court proceedings. Sometimes, the term refers to an attorney that works exclusively for a company or agency. To explore this concept, consider the following legal counsel definition.

Definition of Legal Counsel


  1. A person legally qualified to represent an individual or entity in a legal matter
  2. Services provided by a person who practices law


1175–1225   Middle English (Counseil)

What is Legal Counsel?

When it comes to the legal field, legal counsel is a professional trained to practice law in a specific jurisdiction. This position entails advising and representing individuals, corporations, and other entities in criminal and civil cases. Most lawyers focus their practice on one area of the law. For example, legal counsel may specialize in family law, bankruptcy law, or criminal defense. Some, however, choose to become general practitioners and represent clients in a broad range of matters.

Professional Requirements to Become Legal Counsel

An individual must meet specific professional requirements to become legal counsel. After completing a four-year bachelor’s degree program, they must pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and attend law school. Upon completion of law school, the individual needs to pass the Bar Exam to practice in their respective state.

What is the Role of Legal Counsel?

The main role of legal counsel involves advising and providing guidance to clients. It also entails representing clients through all stages of a lawsuit and ensuring their rights are not violated. The exact responsibilities will vary depending on the issue and whether it is a civil or criminal matter. For example, the role of legal counsel in civil matters may include:

  • Presenting cases to judges or juries
  • Negotiating settlements and legal disputes
  • Filing legal briefs
  • Filing appeals
  • Creating contracts
  • Ensuring businesses comply with local, state, and federal laws

When it comes to criminal cases, a strong legal defense is vital, especially if the defendant faces incarceration. The key role of legal counsel in criminal cases involves defending those accused of a crime. Some of the duties include:

  • Advising defendants their rights
  • Explaining the various stages of the trial process
  • Ensuring a defendant’s rights are not violated
  • Negotiating with the prosecution on a defendant’s behalf
  • Filing motions with the court
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Gathering evidence
  • Calling witnesses during a trial
  • Presenting arguments to the judge or jury
  • Investigating facts

6th Amendment Right to Legal Representation

The 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant’s right to an attorney. In simple terms, this means that a person accused of a crime has the right to legal representation. This is true even if the accused is unable to afford to pay an on his own.

The 6th Amendment reads as:

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

The 6th Amendment right to legal representation originally only applied to federal criminal cases. However, several Supreme Court cases throughout the years have expanded this right. For example, legal counsel was guaranteed in state and federal capital cases with the ruling in Powell v. Alabama.

Public Defender

To prevent violating a defendant’s right to an attorney, courts appoint public defenders to those who cannot afford legal counsel. Provided and paid for by state and federal governments, public defenders have the same education and training as private lawyers. In larger jurisdictions, an office of the Public Defender employs multiple defense attorneys. These attorneys often have large caseloads. In smaller jurisdictions, the court may appoint a public defender from a pool of local private attorneys.

Legal Counsel Example in 6th Amendment Right to Representation

In 1963, Clarence Earl Gideon faced felony charges of breaking and entering. At trial, Gideon requested that the court appoint him an attorney as he was unable to afford one. The judge denied his request because Florida state law only allowed appointment of counsel to poor defendants in capital cases.

Gideon represented himself throughout his trial. He made opening statements, cross-examined witnesses, and presented witnesses. However, the judge found him guilty, and sentenced him to five years in prison.


Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition in the Florida Supreme Court, seeking relief from his conviction. He argued that the trial court’s refusal to appoint counsel violated his constitutional right to representation. The Florida Supreme Court denied the petition, prompting Gideon to file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. The court agreed to hear the case.

The Supreme Court was unanimous in Gideon v. Wainwright. It ruled that states must provide counsel to defendants charged with serious crimes if they cannot afford one. In present times, this confirmed example of legal counsel rights refers to any crime for which conviction might result in loss of liberty (prison time).

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Prosecution – Legal proceedings against an individual for criminal behavior.
  • Defendant – A party who is the target of a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or chargedwith a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Jury – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • PlaintiffThe legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Plea Bargain – An agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to some of the charges, or a lesser charge, in exchange for a reduced sentence, or some other concession by the prosecution.