How to Hire an Attorney on Retainer

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A retainer is a fee paid to an attorney or other professionals in advance, for services. Often, retainers are paid monthly, based on an estimate of the amount of work to be done for the client each month.

A retainer might work like this: You would pay your attorney $500 a month for legal services during that month. If you have a question or need a matter handled, it comes off the retainer amount.

If you don't use the full amount of the retainer, in most cases you would not get a refund or a credit ​toward the next month. If you use more time than the retainer amount will cover, you will need to pay the additional fees.​​

Keeping Track of the Retainer

Two points to note as you work with your attorney: 

Checking Work Billed
As you work with your attorney, you should receive an update letter every month. The letter should include an accounting statement form with details of the work done against the retainer, time billed for each item of work done or contact made, and a total amount billed. If you don't get a letter every month, ask for one.

Going Over the Retainer Amount​
A good attorney will alert you when the amount billed is getting close to the maximum on the retainer. Your attorney should notify you either that a new retainer agreement is needed or get your permission to go over the retainer. Some attorneys will put a clause in the agreement stating that you agree to keep paying even after the retainer has been billed.

Benefits of a Retainer Arrangement

  • A retainer arrangement benefits both the client and the attorney. The attorney has the assurance of a monthly amount, in advance. This is particularly helpful if a client is slow in paying.
  • The retainer arrangement is also beneficial for the client because it provides a budget for legal fees.

What Is Included in a Retainer Letter?

One way to make sure that there is complete understanding about the fees is to ask for a retainer letter from your attorney. There is no such thing as a "typical" attorney retainer letter, but there are common features included in most retainer letters:

  • The amount of the initial retainer, which is often explained as "earned when paid" (in other words, it is non-refundable)
  • Billing rates charges against the retainer. These billing rates for the attorneys at the firm and for their staff members are determined by (a) education, (b) years of experience, and (c) specialized expertise. In other words, an experienced partner would charge more than a new paralegal.
  • Additional costs which may be charged, in addition to or included in the retainer, such as court costs, costs during the discovery process (including depositions and interrogatories) travel expenses, postage, copying, long distance phone charges, and others.
  • Billing frequency and terms. Usually, bills are sent out monthly, showing the costs for the previous month and the amount of retainer remaining. Additional costs, or additional retainer amounts, are usually due "upon receipt."
  • What happens if you don't pay. Recourse might be a service fee (interest) on the overdue balance, your responsibility for court fees, and the imposition of a lien on the documents and property in possession of the attorney (in other words, you don't get your stuff back until you pay the attorney's bill).

    Other Types of Retainers

    Many professionals work on retainers. For example, a graphic designer might work on retainer for a specific client. A retainer can be set up for monthly, annual, or per-project payments. The professional is basically working off the retainer, and it is up to the client to be sure that the amount of the retainer is worked off every month.

    For example, if a designer bills $1000 a month, that bill must be paid even though the designer may not have done $1000 of work in that month.

    Also Known As: legal fees