Anytime you engage the services of a lawyer, he’s probably going to ask you to sign a retainer agreement, which is for your protection as well as his. The agreement is a contract that sets out the terms of his representation and delineates your responsibilities, too. If you break the terms of the contract, your lawyer may have grounds for “firing” you, but ethics rules in most states prevent lawyers from terminating representation of a client without very good cause.
The Cost of Representation
A legal retainer agreement should clearly set out how, when and how much your attorney expects you to pay him. This depends on what kind of case you’re asking him to handle. If you’re hiring him for a personal injury case, he’ll probably ask for a percentage of your proceeds if your litigation is successful. You won’t have to pay until your case is resolved. If you don’t win, your legal fees are typically confined to any costs of the lawsuit that the retainer agreement assigns to you, such court filing fees. Criminal defense attorneys and bankruptcy lawyers often ask for a flat fee up front, whereas divorce lawyers often require a retainer fee. In such an arrangement, the attorney deposits the retainer fee into his trust account, and then bills his time against it on an hourly basis as your case progresses. When your case is over, he’ll refund the balance to you if there is one. If the money runs out before your case is over, you may have to deposit additional money or your lawyer might agree to bill you monthly going forward.
The Lawyer’s Responsibilities
However your legal fees are structured, your attorney has certain fiduciary and legal responsibilities to you when he accepts your money and signs the retainer agreement. The agreement should clearly spell out what these duties are. For example, the contract might say that he’ll handle your divorce but that he’s under no obligation to represent you if your ex takes you back to court after your divorce is final. A retainer agreement might bind him to representing you through a basic bankruptcy procedure, but if a creditor files a lawsuit within your bankruptcy proceedings, this might cost you extra.
The Client’s Responsibilities
You also have certain responsibilities to your attorney -- and many retainer agreements set these terms out as well. You’ll probably have to agree to appear for all necessary court proceedings and otherwise cooperate with your case. You might have to promise to provide certain paperwork, or you could work out a deal with your lawyer to make copies of paperwork yourself so his staff doesn’t have to do it. Since this might save you some money, if you offer to do this when you’re discussing the terms of your retainer agreement, make sure to include this provision in the agreement.
Termination of Representation
Some retainer agreements determine what will happen if you and your lawyer decide to part ways before your case is concluded. It might set out specific terms by which either of you can terminate representation. If you decide you want another lawyer, you’re entitled to a full copy of your case records, but you must typically pay for the attorney’s representation up until the date you terminate his services. If you paid a retainer fee, the agreement should state what happens to any unused balance at this point. Lawyers generally can’t keep the unused balance of any retainer fee you paid. Under most state laws, lawyers generally aren’t allowed to leave you in the lurch and withdraw their representation on a whim or over a minor transgression or grievance.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.