What is a Retainer and Why Do I Need One?

When you hire a lawyer for a family law matter, inevitably the conversation will turn to the issue of attorney’s fees, court costs and the establishment of a retainer.  Although lawyers and their clients discuss retainers every day, many clients leave the discussions confused about what they have agreed to.  When the bill comes later that month, a client may become frustrated trying to understand how their money was spent.  I understand it can be difficult to understand how retainers work and frustrating to learn what legal services cost.  Some of these problems are within a lawyer’s control and some of them are not.  At Meneray Family Law, L.L.C., I want my clients to be a part of the process from beginning to end, and to feel comfortable with all of the decisions being made, including how their hard-earned money is spent.

A retainer agreement is a contract.  It sets out rights and responsibilities, so that you know what you have to do and what you can expect from your attorney, but also what your lawyer must do and what your lawyer can expect from you.

Your Attorney’s Rights and Responsibilities

A lawyer is obligated to perform certain legal services.  Those services should be spelled out in the retainer agreement with enough detail to allow you, the client, to understand what he or she is doing for you.  The attorney is bound to the responsibilities outlined in the agreement.  If there is work to be done that is not in the agreement, the agreement should be updated to include that work, or a new agreement should be drawn up to include those new responsibilities.

In exchange for the work outlined in the retainer agreement, the attorney has a right to expect to be paid a certain amount of money.  The retainer agreement should state how much per hour your lawyer charges for his time, as well as for the time of any other attorney, secretary or paralegal the lawyer may use to help with your case.

Your Rights and Responsibilities as a Client

The client has a right to expect the legal services outlined in the contract to be performed to the extent that the attorney is able to do so.  At Meneray Family Law, L.L.C., I work with my clients to make a plan for each case.  I am in frequent contact with my clients to make certain they know how things are going to carry out that plan, and when the plan has to change to meet changing conditions, we discuss that too.  You have the right to know, at all times, what is going on in your case.

It is a client’s responsibility to pay his or her attorney for the work she or he does for you, according to the terms of the retainer agreement.  The bill a client receives should spell out how much time a lawyer spent on his case and what exactly the lawyer did to earn the money.  If the bill is unclear, the client has a right to ask for clarification.  The bill should also show how much of a client’s money was used to pay court costs and other expenses above and beyond the lawyer’s hourly fee.  Again, if you are uncertain as to how your money is being spent, you have the right to ask for an explanation.

So, What is This Retainer Business?

The retainer is, to put it simply, a deposit.  A lawyer makes a guess as to what your case will cost, taking into account the particular facts of your situation, the number of attorney hours the case may take, and the court costs and other expenses that may be expected in your type of matter.  It is not easy to estimate what a case will cost, and it should be understood from the beginning that this is just an educated guess as to how much money you may need to see your case through to the end.  The money paid is put into a bank account established especially for attorney retainers, called a trust account.  The lawyer doesn’t draw interest on this account when the money sits in the bank.  The interest goes to a special fund that helps people who can’t afford lawyers to get free legal help.  As the lawyer earns money by working on your case, he or she withdraws the fee from the trust account.  He also withdraws money from that account to pay the clerk of court for filing fees, or the post office for stamps, or for any other expenses related to your case.

Replenishing the Retainer

Once the retainer is spent, it has to be “replenished” in order to continue paying the fees and costs associated with your ongoing legal matter.   You will need to put more money into the trust account in order to keep your case going.  How much the replenishment is will depend on how much more work needs to be done and how many other expenses the attorney believes you will incur during the life of your case.

What Happens to Retainer Money that Isn’t Spent?

When your case is over, any money not spent should be refunded to you.  After all, the retainer account is just a holding place for your money until such time as it is needed to pay attorneys fees or other expenses.

Final Thoughts

Not all legal matters require a retainer.  Some matters are simple enough to be done for a flat fee, a one-time charge for all legal work and expenses involved.

You should be able to get an idea of what charges you can expect, and whether or not a retainer will be required, in your initial consultation with an attorney.

I work hard to make certain my clients are comfortable throughout my representation of them.  If you have questions about a family law matter, and want to meet with me to find out what it will cost to resolve, call Meneray Family Law today at (504) 330-5522, or send me an e-mail at liz@menerayfamilylaw.com.

 

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