A Guide To Lawyer Retainer works: Their Cost, How They Work, And Examples

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By Freya

Have you ever wondered what a lawyer retainer is and how it works? If you are contemplating hiring an attorney for any reason, this guide will be extremely helpful. We will discuss what a retainer is, how they work, and the cost associated with them, and provide some examples of situations when you might need one. By the end of this article, you should have a good understanding of lawyer retainers and be able to make an up-to-date decision on whether or not they’re right for your particular needs.

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What is a lawyer retainer?

When you hire a lawyer, you usually do so by the hour. This can be expensive, particularly if your case is complex or time-consuming. Many people ask their lawyers to work on a retainer basis to save money.

A retainer is an amount of money you pay in advance, which the lawyer can use to cover their fees and expenses. The lawyer usually keeps the retainer in a trust account and only uses it as needed. Once the retainer is used up, you will need to replenish it if you want the lawyer to continue working on your case.

A retainer is a payment arrangement made with lawyers to reserve their employment or as compensation for future services. Retainers can also be used interchangeably with the phrase “hourly rate.” The most common form of retainer is the general retainer, in which a client hires an attorney on the condition that the attorney would handle any cases or problems that may arise for the client.

lawyer retainer
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How does a lawyer retainer work?

A lawyer retainer is money clients pay in advance to have a lawyer available to them when they need legal assistance. The lawyer then holds onto the retainer until the services are needed.

The client and lawyer will agree on an hourly or flat fee for the lawyer’s services. The client will then pay the lawyer a sum of money upfront, which the lawyer will hold in trust. Clients who need legal assistance will contact the lawyer, who will bill them for their time and expenses incurred up to the retainer. Any funds not used will be returned to the client. 

Why do lawyers use retainers? Retainers allow lawyers to be compensated for their time and expertise without having to invoice clients after every interaction. This arrangement also provides some certainty for clients, who know how much they will pay for legal services

The amount of the retainer will vary depending on the type of legal matter you need assistance with as well as the experience level of the lawyer. For example, a complex divorce case will likely require a larger retainer than drafting a simple will.

If you own a business, having a business attorney on retainer gives you access to legal advice.

The cost of a lawyer’s retainer

When you hire a lawyer, you will typically be asked to pay a retainer fee. This fee is a down payment on the lawyer’s services and is usually collected before the lawyer begins work on your case. The retainer fee amount will vary depending on the case type and the lawyer’s experience. For example, a simple divorce case may require a retainer fee of $500, while a more complex civil lawsuit could require a retainer fee of $5,000 or more. Once the retainer fee is paid, the lawyer will begin work on your case. As the lawyer works on your case, they will incur expenses, such as filing fees and court costs. These expenses will be deducted from the retainer fee. When the retainer fee runs out, you will either need to pay the additional lawyer funds, or the lawyer may choose to withdraw from your case. Therefore, it is important to understand the cost of a lawyer’s retainer before hiring one.

Examples of lawyer retainers

There are many different types of lawyer retainers, each with its purpose and cost. Here are a few examples of when you might need to pay a retainer to include: –

  • When you are being sued and need to hire a lawyer to describe you in court.
  • When you are buying or selling property and need a lawyer to review the paperwork.
  • When you are getting divorced and need a lawyer to help with the paperwork and negotiation.
  • When drafting a will or trust and needing a lawyer to advise you on the legalities, The cost of retainers can also vary widely depending on the case type and the lawyer you hire. 
  • For simple matters, like drafting a will, you may only need to pay a few hundred dollars. 
  • But for more complex cases, like divorce or being sued, retainers can cost thousands of

When to use a lawyer retainer?

A lawyer retainer is an amount of money a client pays in advance to have a lawyer available to them when they need legal services. The client pays the retainer fee, and the lawyer holds it in a trust account. Clients who need legal services can draw on the funds in the trust account to pay for those services.

There are a few situations when you want to use a lawyer retainer. For example, if you are starting a new business, you should pay a lawyer retainer to have legal counsel available during the start-up process. Or, if you are going through a divorce, you should pay a lawyer retainer so that you have representation throughout the process.

No matter what your reason for needing legal services is, if you think paying a lawyer retainer will be helpful for your situation, there are a few things you should remove. 

  • First, ensure you understand how much the retainer fee will be and what it covers. 
  • Second, be aware that not all lawyers accept retainers – so if you have your heart set on working with a particular lawyer or law firm, make sure they are open to this arrangement before moving forward. 
  • Finally, remember that once you pay a lawyer retainer, those funds are typically non-refundable – even if you end up not using all of them.

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Types of Lawyer Retainers

The purpose of a lawyer retainer is to ensure that your lawyer is compensated for their time and work. There are three main types of retainers:

  1. Hourly Retainer: An hourly retainer means you will pay your lawyer an agreed-upon hourly rate for their services. This type of retainer is typically used for cases that are expected to take many hours or when the outcome is uncertain.


  1. Fixed Fee Retainer: A fixed fee retainer means that you will pay your lawyer a set amount of money upfront, regardless of how many hours they end up performing on your case. This type of retainer is typically used for cases that are not expected to take many hours or when the outcome is certain.


  1. Contingency Fee Retainer: A contingency fee retainer means that you will only pay your lawyer if they win your case. This type of retainer is typically used in personal injury cases, where the lawyer’s fees will be a percentage of the total agreement amount.


Types of retainer agreements: 1) Standard or Traditional, 2) Progressive, and 3) Hybrid.

1. Standard or Traditional Retainer Agreement: 

This is the most common type of retainer agreement. The client pays the lawyer a sum of money upfront and provides services up to that dollar amount. Once the funds are depleted, the lawyer may bill the client for additional hours worked at their hourly rate or request another retainer fee.


2. Progressive Retainer Agreement: 

A progressive retainer agreement works similarly to a standard or traditional agreement, with one key difference – instead of paying the lawyer a lump sum upfront; the client pays the lawyer in installments (usually monthly). This allows clients to budget their legal expenses better and gives them flexibility if they need to discontinue services.


3. Hybrid Retainer Agreement: 

A hybrid retainer agreement combines a standard/traditional retainer agreement and an hourly billing arrangement. The client pays the lawyer a lump sum up front, but unlike a standard agreement, unused funds are returned to the client at the end of the case (minus any applicable fees). This arrangement gives clients some predictability regarding their total legal expenses while allowing them to take advantage of any “bargain” hours that may be available.

Ways to work with a lawyer without a retainer agreement

There are some ways that you can work with a lawyer without signing a retainer agreement. The first is to ask for an initial consultation. Many lawyers will offer a free consultation, during which you can discuss your legal needs and get to know the lawyer. After the consultation, you can decide whether or not you want to hire a lawyer and sign a retainer agreement.

Another way to work with a lawyer without signing a retainer agreement is to use what is known as an unbundled legal service. With this type of service, you only pay for the specific legal services you need rather than all of the services that a lawyer would typically provide. This can be a great option if you only need help with one specific issue or if you are on a tight budget.

Finally, another option for working with a lawyer without signing a retainer agreement is simply paying an hourly rate for the lawyer’s time. This can be a good option if you only need the lawyer for a limited time or are comfortable paying by the hour.

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How to Apply for a Lawyer Retainer?

Consider applying for a lawyer retainer when you need legal assistance but don’t want to hire a lawyer outright. A lawyer retainer is a sum of money you pay in advance to have a lawyer available to give you legal advice or represent you in court when needed.

The cost of a it varies depending on the type of legal services you need and the lawyer’s location. For example, a retainer for a criminal defense lawyer in New York City will likely be more expensive than a retainer for an estate planning lawyer in rural Wisconsin.

To apply for a lawyer retainer, you must contact the law firm or individual attorney, you wish to hire and provide them with information about your case. The lawyer will then review your case and give you an estimate of the retainer fee. Once the fee is paid, the lawyer will be available to offer legal advice or representation when needed.

There are many benefits to using a lawyer retainer, including having peace of mind knowing that you have someone on your side who can help if legal problems arise. However, it’s important to understand that retainers are only sometimes refundable if you decide not to use the lawyer’s services after paying the fee. Therefore, it’s important to be sure that you need a lawyer before applying for a retainer.


A lawyer retainer is a great way to meet your legal needs. By understanding how retainers work, their costs, and examples of when they have to be used, you’ll know what is necessary to decide whether hiring a lawyer with a retainer is the right choice for you. Armed with this information, you can confidently move forward in tackling any legal issues that come your way.


Q. Why Do Some Attorneys Require a Retainer?

A legal retainer is essentially insurance. While a retainer fee does not guarantee that you will be able to pay for all of your upcoming legal bills, it does assure that your attorney is compensated for the time spent working on your case. A retainer fee is not required in all circumstances. If the matter is straightforward, your lawyer may be willing to undertake legal services for an upfront price.

Q. When Does a Lawyer Earn a Retainer Fee?

A retainer is made up of both unearned and earned funds. A retainer agreement can go into greater detail about how these are defined. In general, unearned payments in a retainer are any cash remaining in the trust account that your attorney has yet to use. On the other hand, earnings are any funds taken from the account by the attorney to pay for billed hours or other expenditures involved with the case (as per properly documented receipts).

Q. How Long Does a Lawyer Retainer Last?

A lawyer can only claim the retainer fee once the task is completed and an invoice is presented to the client. The retainer remains in the client’s ownership until utilized for legitimate expenses as specified in the retainer agreement. The funds in the trust account will not be lost.