Easy Guide: What Is an Attorney Retainer?

Selecting the right attorney is an important decision when you need legal services. Beyond assessing lawyers’ expertise and experience, it’s also crucial to understand the billing and payment arrangements they use. One such model is a retainer agreement between a client and attorney. This article will provide an in-depth look at what retainer fees entail, the different types of retainers, how to navigate retainer agreements, and best practices for both legal professionals and their clients.

What Is a Retainer for an Attorney?

A retainer is a sum of money paid upfront to secure an attorney’s availability and services for a particular matter. Unlike an hourly fee that is charged incrementally as work is completed, a retainer allows a client to “reserve” an attorney’s time and ensure they will be accessible. It functions as an advance payment to cover expected legal fees and expenses for representation on the specified case or issue.

Retainers provide lawyers with a predictable cash flow and guaranteed commitment from clients. For clients, retainers allow them to prioritize their legal matter by locking in advocacy from a chosen attorney. Essentially, a retainer agreement means a lawyer is “on retainer” or “retained” to provide specialized counsel focused on the client’s needs.

What Is a Retainer for an Attorney?

Why the Definition of a Retainer Is Often Misunderstood

Despite being a common arrangement, retainers are often poorly understood by both lawyers and clients. Many associate the term broadly with any upfront payment received by an attorney. However, retainers have distinct meanings and implications.

Firstly, retainers must not be confused with flat fees, contingency fees, or down payments. A flat fee constitutes one fixed total payment for legal work, while contingency fees are only collected upon a successful outcome. Down payments are initial installments toward an estimated total cost. Retainers differ by being flexible prepayments for ongoing services, often tracked and billed against.

Secondly, the word “retainer” itself is often misused to describe various prepayments. Properly understood, a retainer is a fee held by an attorney and kept in trust for a client. However, many lump sum advance payments into one category, when legally they have distinct applications and protections based on the model used.

These misconceptions largely stem from a lack of clear definitions and best practices around retainers. However, the distinctions are important for setting client expectations and managing fees ethically.

The Various Types of Retainers Explained

There are several models of legal retainers, each with unique purposes, procedures, and terms. The three main types are general retainers, special retainers, and classic retainers.

General Retainers

This covers a lawyer’s availability to handle a range of possible legal issues for a client over a set period of time. No single case or matter is specified. The client pays a negotiated fixed sum, such as $5,000 per month, for the attorney to be “on call” as needed. This provides access to counsel for miscellaneous questions and minor needs without billing each interaction. Because no specific legal work is defined, the general retainer fee is earned upfront when paid and can be kept by the attorney whether or not services are actually utilized.

Special Retainers

These agreements cover a lawyer’s services for a specific or limited matter only, such as an ongoing lawsuit. A negotiated fixed fee is paid in advance for the work, which is deposited into a client trust account. The attorney then withdraws from the retainer as they complete tasks towards resolving the case. Any unearned balance remaining at the end of a case is refunded to the client. A special retainer provides a client reserved access to services from a chosen attorney for a particular legal issue. It is sometimes also referred to as a “limited purpose retainer.”

Classic Retainers

Here, a lump sum is paid to secure a lawyer’s general availability and commitment to a client over a fixed term. It is the most traditional model of retaining an attorney. The client pays a flat periodic fee, like $50,000 per year, for the right to access the lawyer’s services. While general in scope, specific matters may arise that require separate billing and fee arrangements. The retainer is usually non-refundable but may be applied as credit against additional fees. This offers clients flexible access and responsiveness from counsel for ongoing needs.

How an Attorney Retainer Works

When establishing a retainer arrangement, a lawyer will first determine an appropriate fee based on factors like their experience and expertise, complexity of the client’s case, and anticipated workload. The client pays this set amount upfront, which is then deposited and held in the lawyer’s trust account. As work progresses on a matter, the attorney withdraws (“deducts”) their earned fees and expenses from the retainer balance. Ongoing communication ensures the client is informed of these accruals. When the retainer depos it is depleted, additional payments would be required from the client to maintain or continue services. Any unused balance is refunded to the client upon completion or termination of the matter.

From the lawyer’s perspective, retainers create stable cash flow to support operations and capacity to deliver legal services at an agreed quality level. For clients, retainers provide assurance that a chosen law firm or attorney will be available and prioritized to work on their pressing legal issue. Overall, clearly outlining expectations upfront lays a foundation for an effective ongoing relationship.

Why Should Attorneys Use a Retainer?

Retainers offer a range of benefits that make them advantageous for lawyers to utilize, including:

  • Reliable income flow – The prepayment nature provides reliable upfront revenue to help lawyers manage financials and maintain their practice. This supports consistent staffing and resourcing levels.
  • Protected time allocation – By reserving blocks of time, lawyers can dedicate focus to retained clients and matters with reduced risk of overbooking. This results in quality client service.
  • Reinforced client relationships – Retainers foster commitment between lawyers and clients for dedicated advocacy. This cements loyalty and improves retention over multiple engagements.
  • Clearer expectations – Defined scope, process and terms of representation clarify responsibilities on both sides for smoother interactions.
  • Enhanced credibility – Retainers signal that clients have sought out and invested in a lawyer’s services and expertise. This strengthens their authority and influence.

Overall, retainers help lawyers run an effective and profitable practice while delivering premium service and counsel to clients.

Best Practices for Attorney Retainers

When utilizing retainers, lawyers should follow certain guidelines to keep relationships ethical and constructive with clients:

  • Use retainer agreements – All fee expectations should be established in a written signed agreement. Verbal discussions alone are insufficient.
  • Explain regular billing – Clearly communicate to clients how you deduct accrued fees from retainers to avoid confusion.
  • Return unearned fees – Refund any unused balance from special retainers at the end of a case as legally required.
  • Avoid unreasonable size – Don’t set excessively high retainers beyond predictable needs, which may be unethical and prohibited in some states.
  • Separate client funds – Always keep retainer payments in dedicated trust accounts according to applicable bar rules.
  • Set clear scopes – Delineate the legal matters, timeframes, and expectations covered to prevent unfocused “mission creep.”
  • Adjust when needed – Periodically review hours worked and legal needs to modify retainers amounts if required.

Following best practices creates positive and productive attorney-client relationships.

What To Consider Before Hiring an Attorney on Retainer

For clients, retainers represent a significant upfront investment and commitment. Assessing a few key areas first is wise before entering a retainer agreement:

  • Legal needs – Consider your legal matters and how immediately urgent or predictable they are. Is sporadic counsel or intensive litigation support needed more?
  • Specialization – Match lawyers’ expertise and strengths to your case types and interests. A generalist may suit basic needs while complex issues require niche skills.
  • Cost range – Gauge the typical hourly rates, case fees, and retainer sizes lawyers charge. Budget accordingly as some top practitioners carry premium pricing.
  • Communication style – Look for lawyers who are clear communicators, listeners, and easily accessible. Retainers rely heavily on lawyer-client collaboration.
  • Experience level – Weigh options between seasoned, established lawyers versus junior associates who cost less but bring less experience.
  • Firm resources – Larger firms offer more comprehensive support staff and tools that sole practitioners lack. Determine what resources suit your case.

Thoughtfully weighing these factors will help identify the ideal legal retainer arrangement.

Navigating the Retainer Agreement: A Client’s Guide

Before entering a retainer agreement, clients should understand the typical contents to protect their interests:

  • Parties involved – The agreement names the client and lawyer involved as well as the law firm, if applicable.
  • Types defined – The retainer model being used, such as general, special limited, or classic, is specified.
  • Scope covered – Exact legal needs, issues, and objectives the lawyer will advise on are outlined.
  • Duration and term – The timeframe the retainer agreement applies to, such as 6 months, is defined. Terms for renewal or extension are noted.
  • Fees and billing – Payment amounts, schedules, and withdrawal/deduction protocols are established.
  • Refund policy – Under what conditions unearned fees will be returned to the client are detailed.
  • Termination rights – Ability for either party to end the agreement if needed.

By understanding these standard provisions, clients can better protect themselves legally and financially. Be sure to negotiate unclear or concerning terms.

The Impact of Retainer Agreements on Client-Lawyer Relationships

Thoughtfully structured retainer agreements reinforce positive relationships between clients and their legal counsel in a few key ways:

  • Alignment of priorities – The prepaid, reserved nature of retainers incentivizes lawyers to dedicate time and focus to the client’s case.
  • Trust building – Upfront financial commitment demonstrates the client’s faith and trust in the lawyer’s capabilities.
  • Clear expectations – Defined scope, schedules, and terms clarify responsibilities and simplify interactions between both parties.
  • Foundation for the long-term – Satisfying retained engagements position the lawyer as the client’s go-to resource for advice on future legal issues.
  • Accessibility and responsiveness – Retainers allow lawyers to be more available to clients by reserving blocks of time.

Overall, retainers enable strong attorney-client relationships characterized by open communication, trust, and mutual commitment over time.


Retainer fees are a common but often misunderstood billing method between lawyers and clients. By grasping the distinctions around retainers, both legal professionals and their clients can employ them more effectively. When structured thoughtfully, retainers provide unique benefits like reliable income for lawyers and reserved access to counsel for clients. Used properly, they form a foundation for efficient collaboration and lasting relationships between attorneys and those they advise. With a clear understanding of retainers, clients can feel empowered navigating these agreements to secure ideal legal advocacy.