What is a Retainer and Why Do I Have to Pay It?

Client and attorney shaking hands concept of attorney retainer.

Family law attorneys provide services to clients to assist them with resolving a wide variety of issues, including matrimonial, child custody, child support, property division, and alimony matters. However, before the attorney will commence their representation, you may be required to sign a retainer agreement and pay an attorney retainer fee. While the fee can vary based on the complexity of your case and a variety of other factors, it’s important to understand what a retainer is and why it is necessary to pay it.

What is a Retainer Agreement?

If you are considering hiring an attorney for your divorce or family law matter, you might be wondering whether you will be required to enter into a retainer agreement. This is a document that confirms the attorney-client relationship. It is also a contract that outlines the rights and responsibilities of the client — and the attorney’s obligations to the client. It includes clear information regarding payment for the legal services that will be rendered by the attorney, their hourly fee, items you will be billed for, and the scope of representation.

Specifically, you should expect to be billed for the following when you retain an attorney:

  • Phone calls and emails with the attorney
  • Drafting pleadings and motions
  • Court appearances
  • The attorney’s communications with the other side’s attorney
  • Reviewing evidence
  • Legal research pertaining to your matter
  • Conducting discovery and depositions
  • Reviewing deposition transcripts
  • Filing and court costs

A retainer agreement will specify what should be expected when it comes to communication between the client and the attorney, as well as who will be working on the case. Attorneys will often have staff members or associates who perform certain tasks. Their rates should also be specified in the retainer agreement. Other clauses in a retainer agreement may include the reasons an attorney may seek withdrawal from the case and any consequences of non-payment. Significantly, a retainer agreement is meant to protect both the interests of the client and the attorney.

What is a Retainer?

A retainer is advance payment for legal fees that your attorney anticipates earning during the course of their representation. It is a set amount of money that reserves the attorney’s services and allows them to continue working on your case without incurring the risk that they will not be paid. Once an attorney files an appearance in your case, they must keep representing you for that matter until the case concludes or a judge gives them permission to withdraw. The funds are held in a trust account and removed as the work progresses in your legal matter.

Importantly, the retainer funds do not become the property of your attorney until they have been earned. Any work your attorney and their staff do, as well as costs for things like filing fees, are held against the retainer. Your attorney will send you periodic invoices that specify what you’ve been billed for and how much is left in your account.

What Factors Impact the Attorney Retainer Fee?

There are a variety of factors that can influence how much your attorney might charge for a retainer. For instance, you might expect to pay a higher attorney retainer fee if your case is contentious or involves multiple complex issues such as property division, child custody disputes, or contested alimony matters. The retainer amount can also be affected by the attorney’s years of experience and reputation.

An attorney with more experience will typically charge a higher hourly rate and request a larger initial retainer than an attorney who has not been practicing as long. However, it’s essential to select an attorney who is right for your case — you shouldn’t hire an attorney simply based on the amount of the retainer. While cost may be a factor, you should choose an attorney based on their knowledge, ethics, ability to achieve results, responsiveness, and compassion.

What Happens When My Retainer Runs Out?

In most cases, an attorney will not ask for the full amount of anticipated fees up front. Rather, the retainer is based on how much it will cost to get the case started. Once your retainer is below a certain amount, your attorney may request that you replenish the funds in accordance with the retainer agreement you signed. Otherwise, they may bill you on an hourly basis after the retainer runs out. An attorney might also ask for a separate retainer if your case goes to trial.

Contact an Experienced Utah Divorce and Family Law Attorney

If you are facing a divorce or family law matter, it’s crucial to have an experienced divorce attorney by your side who can help you navigate the legal process. Based in Salt Lake City, BartonWood provides compassionate and skillful counsel to clients for a variety of matrimonial and family law issues. To learn more about our legal services and how we can assist you with your case, call (801) 326-8300 or contact us to schedule a consultation.