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What Is a Retainer Fee?

When you hire an attorney, the contract you sign will state how they should be compensated for their services. Some lawyers, such as those focused on personal injury or defective drug litigation, will only charge you fees if you win your case. This is a contingency model of payment. Other lawyers, such as family or criminal defense attorneys, may charge a retainer fee upfront. This post will briefly discuss what retainer fees are and how your lawyer may structure them.

What Is a Retainer?

A retainer is an advance payment for legal services. Retainers can cover services within a specific time frame or as part of an ongoing relationship. No matter the terms of your retainer contract, it must follow specific state laws and regulations.

What Do Retainers Pay For?

retainer fee agreementA retainer will fund services directly related to the client’s case or legal needs, including:

  • Billable meeting time and consultations
  • Writing documents
  • Time spent to prepare for and participate in negotiations
  • Time spent gathering evidence and investigating a case
  • Time spent being on-call for clients

Retainers do not necessarily fund the practical matters of legal business, including:

  • Supplies, such as paper, stamps, or ink
  • Travel costs for a lawyer to visit your residence, workplace, or court
  • Filing or service fees for motions, forms, or legal requests made on your behalf
  • Time spent on the phone

How Do Retainer Fees Look on a Lawyer’s Contract?

After your first consultation with an attorney, they will present you with a fee schedule and contract outlining the terms of continued representation. A law firm may use a uniform schedule for all attorneys practicing there or separate schedules based on each lawyer’s seniority. For example, if you’re working with a partner, you may pay more than if you were working with an associate of the law firm.

The contract should also detail:

  • The basis for the rates Is a lawyer charging per hour or on a flat fee basis (per service?) They may use either method or both depending on what services are necessary.
  • what is a retainer feeService fees These fees are not part of the retainer. Instead, they focus on the practical nature of legal services such as supplies, labor, travel, or communications.
  • The specifics of a retainer account In most cases, a lawyer must put retainer payments they receive in a special trust account. On a contract, they should list how they will draw from the account, how frequently they will send you statements, and when they may approach you for additional payments.
  • What to do to contest a charge If a client disputes an amount they are assessed, the lawyer may send the matter into arbitration. They should list how arbitration processes will work as a part of the contract.

What If the Retainer Is Too Much or Too Little to Cover the Services?

As a lawyer works with you, they must compare the actual value of services they rendered with how much you paid upfront.

Typically, a monthly statement you receive from the firm will itemize each service and how much money is left in the trust. The lawyer could pay you back what remains or, if you retain their services past the contractual period, roll over the funds to draw from in later periods.

If there is not enough money in the trust to cover services rendered for the period, the firm will bill you for only the outstanding amount. Regular retainers will remain the same if your contract terms dictate that they will.

What Are the Other Items in a Retainer Contract?

In addition to outlining how retainer payments, statements, refunds, service fees, disputes, and extra charges work, the contract between you and your lawyer should also outline other important business, such as:

  • Who specifically within the firm is authorized to work with you on your case
  • How information or documents you provide to the lawyer will be stored and destroyed if necessary
  • What the lawyer is responsible for doing if you change lawyers

Read Your Contract Carefully

If you’re dealing with any legal matter, you should ensure that the agreement between you and your counsel meets your expectations. No contract is final until you sign, so be sure that you read everything multiple times. Depending on the lawyer or firm, you may be able to negotiate payment terms or other contract terms to better fit your needs. The finalized contract should reflect serious mutual discussions of expectations between the two of you.

As you build and pursue your defense case, the Collin County criminal defense attorneys of Rosenthal Kalabus & Therrian are ready to answer any questions you have about retainer fees or your legal services agreement. Contact our firm at (972) 369-0577 to speak with one of our Collin County attorneys about your defense today.

Written by: Rosenthal Kalabus & Therrian Last Updated : August 25, 2022