Understanding Attorney Retainer Agreements

A retainer agreement — or fee agreement for family law cases — is a formal, written agreement that both you and the attorney you hire to represent you sign. Also known as a representation agreement, the purpose for drawing up the document is to outline in detail what each of you should expect from the attorney-client relationship into which you are entering. The agreement also states how you will be billed for the legal services you request.

Reason for the Agreement

In the state of Washington, unless you and your attorney agree to enter into a contingent fee arrangement, the law doesn’t require that you get a fee agreement in writing. However, a written agreement is still a good idea, even if you agree to pay the attorney a flat fee or hourly billing rate.

Like other written contracts, once you and your attorney sign the agreement, it becomes an enforceable legal contract. By specifying the rights and responsibilities each of you have in the relationship, a retainer or fee agreement is a vehicle for resolving any conflicting issues that may arise between you.

For instance, you as the client are responsible for providing your attorney with information that is complete, accurate and truthful. In return, your attorney is responsible for acting with due diligence on your behalf and keeping you informed about the status of your case.

A written agreement that outlines the nature of the legal services the attorney will provide, as well as the method and amount of compensation, can help prevent the development of disputes between you and your attorney. If the legal services you’ve requested involve more than drawing up documents, the agreement should state that the attorney makes no guarantees about the outcome of your case.

When you and your attorney sign the agreement, the two of you are agreeing to move forward with the legal services you have requested. Your signatures on the contract also affirm that each of you agree to the terms and conditions set forth in the agreement. Consequently, it’s important to be clear about the legal matter in which the attorney is representing you.

What the Agreement Should Include

Along with your name and the name of the attorney and law firm with which he or she is affiliated, a retainer or fee agreement should include:

  • Reason why you need the attorney to represent you, such as representing you in divorce proceedings
  • Amount of the retainer fee which is placed into a trust account
  • Whether any unused portion of the retainer fee will be refunded to you
  • Manner in which you will be billed for fees and reimbursable expenses, which are separate from attorney fees and may include courier fees and court filing fees
  • Payment terms — how often you will be billed and when payment is due

If the attorney you hire bases compensation for the legal services he or she provides on a flat fee billing structure, the agreement should specify the services and expenses the fee covers. Family law attorneys often charge flat fees for drafting a last will and testament, drawing up living will and power of attorney documents, writing estate planning documents and settling child custody, support and visitation agreements out of court.

Payment for Legal Fees and Expenses

If the attorney you hire bills on an hourly basis, the agreement should specify the hourly billing rates for not only the attorney but also for any associates or paralegals who work on your case. Fees are based on the number of hours the attorney, his or her associates and a paralegal spend on your case.

Any amount of time these legal professionals put into research, negotiations, document drafting, correspondence, telephone calls, emails, conferences, court time and travel time may be billed on a monthly basis. If you pay a retainer fee, the monies deposited in the trust account are applied to itemized, monthly bills until the amount set aside in trust is fully spent.

Often, once the initial retainer deposit is used up, clients who pay by the hour are billed on a weekly basis. The bill covers the hours for the previous week with payment due upon receipt. The agreement may also state that payments you make are nonrefundable.

Inclusion of Other Provisions

You and your attorney may include additional provisions in the fee agreement. These may include the right of either of you to terminate the relationship, days and times when you can communicate with the attorney and the types of legal services your attorney is not providing under the contract.

If you request legal services other than those stated in the signed agreement, you must then negotiate a separate agreement. Legal services not included in the original agreement usually are billed separately.

Regardless of what provisions the fee agreement contains, it’s important not to sign the contract unless you are certain that you fully understand the terms stated. Retainer fees generally are due upon signing of the agreement.

For answers to additional questions you may have about attorney legal fees, retainers or attorney fee structures, the legal team at Madison Law Firm, PLLC can clarify how family law representation and fee agreements work.

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