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What Does it Mean to Have a Lawyer on Retainer?

When someone threatens to call “their” lawyer, it likely means that they have a lawyer "on retainer." To have a lawyer on retainer means that you – the client – pay a lawyer a small amount on a regular basis. In return, the lawyer performs specific legal services whenever you need them.

Retainers are most useful for businesses that need constant or semi-recurring legal work but do not have enough money to hire a lawyer full-time. This could include services like ensuring regulatory compliance, document review, or representing the business in employment or contract disputes. Also, individuals who are likely to need a lot of legal work, typically people with a higher net worth might, want to keep a lawyer on retainer.

What To Consider Before Hiring an Attorney on Retainer

If having a lawyer on call sounds appealing, stop and think about your legal situation first. Retaining an attorney might be a smart decision, or it could be a waste of money. Ask yourself:

  • What will you use the attorney for? Unless a major accident happens, most people only need an attorney once every few years. If this is true for you, having an attorney on retainer may not be a financially sound decision.
  • Check your insurance policies. Most insurance policies, including auto and homeowner's insurance, will pay for an attorney should you be involved in an accident. If this is so, there is no need to pay an attorney as additional insurance against these lawsuits.
  • Check your employee benefits. If you are an employee of a large company or a member of a union, a lawyer on call may be part of your benefits. These attorneys can handle most routine legal matters, such as wills and real estate transactions, as well as certain lawsuits. Paying another lawyer on retainer when you already have one through your employer usually does not make financial sense.

Finally, don't be confused by the terms "retainer" or "retainer agreement." Generally, these are not the same as having a lawyer "on retainer." When you “retain” a lawyer, that simply means that you are hiring them, and the money you paid to the attorney is known as “the retainer.” The agreement signed when someone hires an attorney is called the retainer agreement.

Have a Clear Representation Agreement

If you are going to hire an attorney on retainer, it is essential to have a written representation agreement in place. This agreement will specify what types of matters your attorney can handle, when you will pay them, and how much you will pay for their services. Just like other fee arrangements, it is important to know what you are getting for what you are paying, and a written agreement can help protect you.

See FindLaw's articles on Meeting with an Attorney and Types of Fee Arrangements for more information.

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