Lesson #115: The Difference Between Attorney’s Fees and Attorneys’ Fees

Lesson #115: The Difference Between Attorney's Fees and Attorneys' Fees

When you think of the word attorney Fees, do you think of the plural form? If so, then you are in good company. Unfortunately, most attorneys aren’t as familiar with their industry as they should be, and this leads to misspellings and other mistakes that can ruin your professionalism and credibility if not corrected promptly. LawProse Lesson #115 covers the difference between attorney’s fees and attorneys’ fees, so it will be easier to avoid this type of error from now on.

Attorney’s Fees vs. Attorneys’ Fees

A reader recently wrote in to ask whether attorney’s fees should be spelled with an apostrophe, as in attorney’s fees, or without an apostrophe, as in attorneys’ fees. The answer is that it depends on what you mean. What matters is not the singular possessive pronoun, but rather the plural noun phrase.

If you are talking about two or more attorneys that are working together to represent a client (or two or more people who share ownership of a business), then the plural version—namely attorneys’ fees—is appropriate.

On the other hand, if you are referring to an attorney representing an individual client or a single business owner, then you should use attorney’s fees. These aren’t interchangeable terms in every context. For example, imagine you are writing a letter to your brother asking him for money to pay off your traffic tickets and registration fees for law school. In that context, it’s clear that your brother is one person—not two or more attorneys who have collectively asked you for money—so attorney’s fees are better.

The singular attorneys

Attorneys are lawyers: A singular attorney is a lawyer. A plural attorney is two or more lawyers. Some people confuse the term attorney with attorney fees, so they mistakenly write attorney’s fees when referring to an individual attorney’s legal fees. But, this is an incorrect usage.

The correct word in referring to a single attorney’s fee is attorney’s fee. Some writers confuse attorneys’ fees, which means all of their legal fees,

with attorney fees, which refer to one or more individual attorneys. Since individual lawyers have different names, they need different pronouns when referred to in the singular. For example, it would be incorrect to say John hired two attorneys.

When are you supposed to use an attorney anyway?

Though this type of rule sounds like one of those pieces of advice your mother gave you, it has some practical consequences. When you want to represent yourself as an attorney in court, you need to register with the judge. If you want to be a witness, though, then you must swear that you are not an attorney. You may also be required to state your occupation when offering expert testimony.

There is no difference between attorney fees and attorneys’ fees; it is just a spelling mistake. If you are trying to discuss a court case where an attorney was hired, then use attorney fees. If you are writing about how to become an attorney, or if you are discussing how your local bar association operates, then the attorneys’ fee is correct. You may also want to ask an editor for help in deciding which word to use before publishing your work.

Why do we care about this distinction anyway?

In United States v. Duncan, the Sixth Circuit addressed this topic, explaining that attorney’s fees are a colloquialism for attorneys’ fees. Interestingly, in United States v. Lewis, the court noted that the word attorney usually denotes an individual who is authorized to represent a party or to act on behalf of another person or organization in a legal matter.

And yet, in some instances, an attorney can also refer to a party who acts on his behalf as an attorney-at-law (as opposed to a paralegal).

Case law on the distinction

To understand the difference between attorney’s fees and attorneys’ fees, it is important to know what they are. In a legal context, attorney’s fees can refer to fees paid by a client or awarded by a court in connection with litigation of a civil or criminal case, whereas attorneys’ fees refer to any fee that an attorney may charge to perform professional services.

(1) It is also important to note that both attorneys’ fees and attorney’s fees are pronounced the same way – with an -ers sound at the end. Thus, without more context, determining which word means what can be tricky for readers. This issue was addressed in the 1998 Supreme Court decision on Drumm.

In Drumm, a nursing home employee filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against her employer. She was eventually awarded $65,000 in attorney’s fees.

(2) Before that award, however, she paid several other fees related to her case – such as costs associated with depositions. These costs were not reimbursed by the court or by anyone else. Rather, they were paid directly out of Ms. Drumm’s pocket.

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