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What Does It Mean to “Attorn”?

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | September 24, 2017

No. 1,353

Image: nobleslawfirm.com

Not what you think.  Its not what attorneys do.  It is usually what tenants of commercial property do — acknowledge the new owner as landlord or the mortgage holder as having rights that precede the lease. Its a verb, used as follows: “Lessee hereby agrees to attorn to subsequent purchasers of the leased premises and assignees of this Lease.” I am told that it is also used by securities lawyers, which I am not.

Ken Adams, the expert’s expert on contracts (Adams’ on Contract Drafting) goes into it even further in a post on the subject. Although the word attorn could theoretically be used for non-legal purposes, this must be pretty rare, at least today.  Through the wonders of Google, I see that Shakespeare actually used this quaint word in Timon of Athens, when he wrote: “And the best half should have attorn’d to him.”

Shakespeare notwithstanding, it is one of those antiques that has been preserved over centuries because passages from old leases were frequently copied into new leases. Commercial leases today typically contain a subordination, non disturbance and attornment agreement or SNDA.

So, how did the word attorney come into the language?  It is derived from a form of an Old French (i.e. ancient French dialect) word, “atorner.”  An attorney is one who acts in behalf of someone else. This concept includes both an attorney at law and an attorney in fact.  The latter holds a power of attorney and exercises the powers enumerated in the document in behalf of the grantor of the power of attorney.

By the way, if you didn’t click the last link, you missed a two hundred year-old lawyer quip, delivered by the great Samuel Johnson.




CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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