Above the Law

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.

Sources:
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.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.

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