LawProse Lesson #115: Is it attorney’s fees or attorneys’ fees?

LawProse Lesson #115: Is it attorney’s fees or attorneys’ fees?

      The prevalent form appears to be attorney’s fees (whether there is one attorney, two attorneys, or an entire firm involved). But attorneys’ fees is also acceptable — and preferred by some — if it’s clear that more than one attorney is charging for services. Although inelegant, attorney fees is becoming more common — presumably to avoid making a decision on the apostrophe altogether. The one variant to avoid at all costs is *attorneys fees, which is a possessive form with the apostrophe wrongly omitted. Some will argue that the plural attorneys is simply being used attributively, but it’s unusual in English to use plural attributives. That is, if you have three sick dogs, you’d say you have a dog problem — not a dogs problem. So *attorneys fees makes little sense. One might sensibly say that the federal statute pretty well settles the problem. In the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Act at 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the form is attorney’s fees. *Invariably inferior form. Source: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 94 (3d ed. 2009). Thanks to Professor Aaron H. Caplan, Carol Gorenberg, and Rick Jank for suggesting this topic. Next week: the proper plural of attorney general.

3 thoughts on “LawProse Lesson #115: Is it attorney’s fees or attorneys’ fees?”

  1. Justice Kagan in Fox v. Vice, wrote:
    Federal law authorizes a court to award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party in certain civil rights cases.

    Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote:
    The district court’s decision is reversed, and the casesare remanded for awards of reasonable attorneys’ fees under §1988.

    A search of the U.S. database for “attorneys’ fees” yields 273 hits.
    A search for “attorney’s fees” yields 596 hits.

  2. In *American* English, it’s uncommon to see a plural attributive. British English is quite comfortable with it. We read in our papers about a “drug problem,” but the Brits lament the “drugs problem.” We do “math homework” and English children do “maths homework.” (I realize the latter is an attenuated example, because we study math, and they study maths. It was the best second example that came readily to mind.)

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