What is a Lawyer Retainer?

signing documents

When someone says they are going to call “their” lawyer, or when they refer to having a lawyer on retainer, what does that mean exactly? What is a lawyer retainer and how does it work?

Many professional service providers will require a retainer and in the case of a lawyer retainer, it is meant to set the terms for legal services to be rendered at a future date. There are different types of retainer options: the retainer agreement and the retainer fee. Typically, these will go together.

Types of Legal Retainer

Retainer Agreement

A retainer agreement is a written agreement that serves as a contract between you and your lawyer. It is used to help ensure clear communication and avoid misunderstandings between you and your lawyer. If issues arise, such as a fee dispute, you can apply to have the bills reviewed by the court.

The agreement may include details such as how and when you and your lawyer will communicate with each other, the legal services to be provided, how fees will be charged (hourly or flat rate), and the consequences of failing to pay. It will typically also detail what will happen to the retainer fee should either party terminate the relationship.

The main purpose of the retainer agreement is to ensure that your dealings with the lawyer go smoothly and that both parties are clear on what to expect.

Retainer Fees

As part of the retainer agreement, you will determine how fees are handled: hourly rate, flat fee, or contingency.

When agreeing to an hourly rate, your lawyer will bill you according to the number of hours of work they do for you. This rate will vary based on the type of work and the experience of the lawyer.

Flat fees determine the fixed fee that will be paid, regardless of the number of hours of work are done on your behalf. This is typically the case for criminal defence lawyers.

Contingency fee agreements indicate that the lawyer will be paid a percentage of a lump sum settlement or trial award received by you in your case. If no money is recovered, you will not be responsible for a legal fee.

Your retainer fee will go into a trust account and your lawyer will withdraw funds as they complete their work. They will send you a bill detailing their withdrawals and you may ask at any time how much of a balance remains in the account.

At the end of the case, if there is still money in the account and no fees are owing, the remaining funds will be returned to you.


What You Should Consider Before You Hire a Lawyer on Retainer

lawyer retainer

If you do not understand any of the conditions listed in your retainer agreement, be sure to ask your lawyer to clarify. They will explain any details to make sure you know what you’re signing. They should also provide you with a copy of the agreement for your records.

Aside from detailing fees, you may wish to include terms such as:

  • Means of arbitration in the event of a dispute
  • The client’s right to terminate the retainer agreement
  • The lawyer’s right to withdraw
  • Conflict checks
  • The privacy policy of the lawyer and firm
  • Intention to use associates and paralegals for additional services and expenses


How Long is a Lawyer Retainer Good For?

A lawyer cannot claim the retainer fee until they have completed work and provided an invoice to the client. The retainer is still the possession of the client until used for legitimate expenses as detailed in the retainer agreement. The amount in the trust account will not expire.

If you require a lawyer, or wish to learn more about legal retainers, do not hesitate to contact us and we will answer all of your questions.

  • 250-487-7030
  • info@hillsidelaw.ca
  • 346 Ellis Street, Penticton, British Columbia V2A 4L7

A Covid-19 Update

From Hillside Law Inc.

We remain open for business as normal, but our office space is temporarily closed to the public. To contact us, please call 250-487-7030.