When you pay for an attorney’s services, one of those most complicated but most important issues for you to understand as a client is how your retainer fee and retainer agreement work between you and the retainer fee lawyer and law firm you have chosen to represent you.
The following is intended to give you both a general overview of how family law retainer fees may function while also giving you insight to Pro Legal Care LLC and Attorney Zachary Townsend’s specific goals for the management of your case with our law firm. If you are a current client and have questions about your specific retainer fee agreement, please call our office at (815) 200-8802.
Table of contents
- Do all lawyers require an upfront retainer fee for legal representation?
- How does a retainer fee work?
- Will I receive invoices from my lawyer? How do I know what my retainer fee was spent on?
- Can I withdraw money from my retainer account?
- What should be included in my retainer agreement?
- Is my retainer fee negotiable?
- How many hours will my case take?
- How does my retainer work if I have more than one court case?
- Will my retainer fee cover my entire case until it’s over?
- How can I make my original retainer last as long as possible?
- What is a trial retainer?
- What is an unearned retainer fee vs earned retainer fee?
- What if I believe my lawyer charges me for something that wasn’t done or was unsuccessful?
- What if I decide to fire my attorney, what happens to my unearned retainer fees?
- Do you ever get your retainer fee back?
- Other Payment Options
Do all lawyers require an upfront retainer fee for legal representation?
You may be able to find an attorney that does not require a down payment of a retainer fee. We don’t know of any, but they might exist. If your case is in Illinois, the best way to find an attorney other than Pro Legal Care LLC is to contact the Illinois State Bar Association referral service at (800) 922-8757. If your legal matter is in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Bar offers a similar service and they can be reached at (800) 362-9082.
While we can’t speak to what other law firms require for retainer fees, at Pro Legal Care LLC, we know that the attorney-client working relationship is best when it is transparent and honest about the cost of legal services, and we strive to keep our clients informed in real-time about what the client’s case is potentially going to cost. In return, we do require an upfront retainer fee to be held in trust to pay the client’s invoices as they are issued, and we do require the retainer payment be made in full prior to work beginning on a client’s case.
How does a retainer fee work?
At Pro Legal Care LLC, our divorce and family law clients begin the process by scheduling a free initial consultation with Attorney Zach Townsend. After going over the background of the case and your goals for moving forward, Attorney Townsend will discuss his hourly rate and the retainer fee that will be necessary to retain our office to represent you in your divorce or family court case.
When you pay your retainer, the money is held in a special attorney’s trust account, where it remains your money until we have earned it through performing tasks in your case such as appearing in court to represent you, compiling financial information and completing calculations for child support, marital support, or reporting on your debts or assets, communicating with you or with your opposing party’s attorney via telephone, email or text, drafting pleadings or responses, or any of the hundreds of ways that we work your case.
Once you have received an invoice for the work that has been completed, money is transferred from your trust account to the attorney’s office to pay the invoice. The remaining balance of your trust funds continues to be held for future invoices.
If your case resolves and your trust account has not been depleted, the remaining funds will be refunded to you. If your retainer fees are depleted but your case is ongoing, your responsibility for payment for future work on your case will be spelled out by the retainer fee agreement that you signed with your attorney or law firm.
Will I receive invoices from my lawyer? How do I know what my retainer fee was spent on?
In Illinois, an attorney is only required to issue an invoice once per quarter (every three months). At Pro Legal Care LLC, we believe that this is far too infrequent for a client to understand their legal costs. We issue an itemized invoice that lists all services rendered and fees every 2-4 weeks at minimum, often more frequently if the pace of your case is moving quickly.
Our invoices are highly detailed and will include a description of each task in the services provided, who performed the work, their hourly fee, how long the task took us, the total for that line item, and any discount that we have applied to the charge. Each invoice will include a total cost for that billing time period and a summary of the unearned retainer fees that remain in your trust account balance.
If you are a current client and have a question about a line item on one of your invoices, please reach out to us immediately to discuss it.
Can I withdraw money from my retainer account?
Your trust account is not a traditional bank account that you have direct access to. Your attorney holds your money in trust for you in a separate account from the law firm’s other accounts at a bank that is governed by the rules of the state in which the attorney is licensed. Your attorney does not earn interest on any money that you have in trust, nor will you.
If you would like your retainer fee returned to you, you need to contact your attorney’s office in order to discuss your goal. If your case is not complete and you wish to have your remaining balance of your trust account refunded, your attorney may first need to withdraw from your case and terminate services prior to refunding your retainer.
What should be included in my retainer agreement?
Scope of Representation
Your retainer agreement for legal services should clearly outline the scope of your representation. Does your contract with the law firm cover just one legal matter, or more than one? When will your case be considered complete and closed? What is specifically excluded from your scope of representation? For example, one common exclusion in family law or divorce cases is the execution of a QDRO (Qualified Domestic Relations Order) to address division of retirement assets at the conclusion of the case. Be sure you know what is included and excluded from your representation agreement.
What is your attorney’s hourly rate? This should be clearly expressed in your retainer fee agreement. Will your attorney be charging you an hourly rate for their non-attorney staff members as well? What is the smallest increment of time that your attorney will be billing a task in?
Exactly what services and tasks your lawyer will be charging for from your retainer fee should also be covered by your retainer fee agreements. How will you be charged for emails, text messages, drive time to the courthouse or other necessary travel expenses, filing fees, photocopying fees for documents, or other additional costs? Having a clear and detailed retainer agreement will help you control your legal fees and understand what you are being charged for as your case progresses.
Your retainer fee agreement can also help you establish communication expectations – what is the best way to communicate with your attorney to ensure timely responses while minimizing your legal fees?
Is my retainer fee negotiable?
After meeting with a potential client to discuss the history of a legal matter and the client’s goals for the case, Attorney Zach Townsend quotes a retainer fee based on what he believes the costs of the case will be in order to achieve reasonable progress on the client’s primary and most important goals. It’s important to us that a client does not have an unreasonable expectation for what we’ll be able to accomplish within a limited budget, and it’s important to us that no client is ever surprised by their retainer fee being depleted before they feel their case has made any progress.
Our primary goal in quoting a retainer fee is to be transparent and honest about what it may cost you in legal fees to attain your goals. Accordingly, our retainer fee is not negotiable, as we do not want to take your retainer fee without having any hope of helping you reach your goals. We do not like having to quit a case early because a client can no longer afford us, and we never want to set a client up for that disappointment.
At Pro Legal Care LLC, we always encourage potential clients to focus more on the billing rates of our legal services rather than the initial retainer fee that we have quoted, as it’s the more important number in the long run of your case. The billing rates of attorneys, paralegals, and other non-attorney staff members are just as important, if not more important, than the amount of your initial retainer fee. Another attorney may quote you a lower initial retainer fee than we do, but if they work at a higher hourly rate than we do, you are actually paying more for their services than you would have paid us.
How many hours will my case take?
This is one of the hardest questions for your attorney to answer for you. While both the client and the attorney may set a goal of minimizing the amount of time spent on your case whenever possible, some work on your case is dependent on the actions taken by your opposing party and by the court itself. Not all time required to meet your goals will be sometime that is within your control – your opposing party may schedule additional court dates, file motions or other pleadings that require response, or issue discovery or schedule depositions that the court requires you to participate in.
Once your case is underway and you receive your first Pro Legal Care LLC invoice for your case, you will understand better how much time each task in your case takes, and you’ll get a general idea of what can be accomplished within one hour of attorney time and how long your retainer fee will last. Good communication with our billing department while the attorney works your case is also helpful for both of us to make sure we are on the same page. Often, a client’s goals change once they see how efficiently their retainer amount is being spent, or once they understand just how expensive protracted litigation in family courts can be. Closely monitoring your invoices and making sure you understand each line item is the best way to manage your case financially and understand how many hours your case will take in total.
How does my retainer work if I have more than one court case?
Your retainer fees and fee agreement are usually specific to one court case. If you have multiple legal matters happening at the same time, be sure that you have clearly communicated that to your attorney, and that your scope of representation of your retainer agreements reflect exactly which cases you’re represented in.
If you do have more than one legal matter, be sure that you and your attorney are on the same page in terms of how your budget will be spent – does each legal issue have a separate budget and separate retainer fee? Do any of them have a higher priority than others?
Will my retainer fee cover my entire case until it’s over?
In most divorce or family law cases, a flat fee is not an option due to state laws that govern attorneys. At Pro Legal Care LLC, we do not offer a flat fee for representation in family court cases. You will receive invoices for the work performed on your case according to an hourly rate, and depending on how many hours are required to complete your case, you may owe more than your retainer fee or you may receive a refund of any unearned portion of your retainer.
How can I make my original retainer last as long as possible?
We see our clients make a number of mistakes that increase their total costs for legal representation over the long-term course of their case.
If your attorney or their staff have to repeatedly ask you for the same information, documents, or other items needed for your case, you may be unwittingly contributing to your own increased fees. We understand that providing a lot of personal or financial information can be very stressful to you, but if required by the judge in your case, delaying the inevitable may not be a good strategy – it may just cost you a lot of money.
In the world of texting and instant communication, often people fire off questions or comments to their attorney frequently and without organization or planning. When your attorney is billing you for each time he or she has to open your file and review the information to provide you with a thoughtful response, you can also help keep your retainer fee under control by organizing your questions, scheduling a telephone call or appointment for more complex questions, and trying to limit the number of times per day that you separately reach out to your attorney’s office.
Taking action without attorney approval
You will not save money in the long run by trying to do your own legal work after you have retained an attorney. Don’t file your own motions, try to negotiate directly with your opposing party without your attorney’s prior approval, or take major actions in your case without first running it past your attorney. Particularly in family cases, we’ve seen one angry Facebook post or one ill-advised text message cost a person thousands in additional attorney fees because it has created serious issues in the court case. You have chosen to pay an expert to handle your case for you – you need to make sure that expert knows everything that is going on and is helping you move forward strategically.
What is a trial retainer?
If negotiations in your case are not successful to bring you and your opposing party to an agreement and resolve your legal issue, your case may be set for trial. Trials can be one of the most expensive parts of litigation. Your fee agreement may specify circumstances in which you will need to pay a special retainer such as a trial retainer which may be an additional retainer beyond your retainer fee.
Your attorney should clearly communicate when a trial retainer is expected and how it is calculated. Is your trail retainer based on the nature of the issues or the expected length of the trial? Does it account for time spent by attorneys and staff members in preparation for the trial? Does it include witness fees and other additional costs that may be incurred because of the trial? Does it need to be paid prior to the start of the scheduled trial? Be sure that you read and re-read your fee agreement closely so that you understand what will be financially expected of you in the event that you choose to set your case for trial.
What is an unearned retainer fee vs earned retainer fee?
Unearned retainer fees are the fees that have not yet been charged in your case, the money that your attorney is holding in trust for future work to be done on your case. It is “unearned” until the attorney provides you with an itemized invoice accounting for how your money was earned by the attorney and law firm.
Earned retainer fees are the fees that you have been charged, which has been transferred from your trust account to cover the invoices that were sent to you for your review.
What if I believe my lawyer charges me for something that wasn’t done or was unsuccessful?
These are two very different questions that are often confused with each other.
An attorney’s hourly charges are not based on whether or not the work that he did in your case was successful – the attorney cannot control whether or not the judge sides with you and grants your requests in your case. Most states prohibit outcome-based pricing in family cases. The attorney is responsible for only charging you for work that he or she did on your case, but even if the outcome is not what you hoped it would be, you will still be charged for the work that was performed.
If you believe you were charged for work that was not actually done, you need to bring it to your attorney’s attention immediately.
In Illinois family and divorce cases, all clients have the right to bring their legal fees before the judge in their family or divorce case for a hearing where the judge reviews the fees and determines whether the lawyer’s charges were fair and reasonable in that specific case. This hearing can also be initiated by the attorney.
What if I decide to fire my attorney, what happens to my unearned retainer fees?
If you or your attorney decide to terminate the attorney-client relationship – regardless of who initiates that decision – your attorney will likely need to file a Motion to Withdraw in your case. The judge usually has to approve of an attorney’s withdrawal from the case before the lawyer is released from their duty to represent you. The attorney’s Motion to Withdraw may be denied or delayed by the Court.
Once the Motion to Withdraw has been granted by the judge, your attorney should issue a final invoice. If you still have a portion of your funds remaining in your account, the attorney will refund your unearned retainer fee.
Do you ever get your retainer fee back?
Yes, you should receive a refund of any and all of the unearned retainer after your attorney invoices all work that was performed on your case. If the work performed exceeds the amount of money that you had in trust, you may have a balance due to your attorney.
Other Payment Options
At Pro Legal Care LLC, we offer a number of payment methods for the initial payment of your retainer fee. We accept cash, check, credit card, debit card, electronic funds transfer, and for qualified applicants, we can also offer a payment plan where you pay a smaller amounts over time rather than your full retainer at once.
If you’ve already been quoted a retainer fee by Attorney Zach Townsend and you have questions about your payment options, please reach out to our office at (815) 200-8802 to discuss your options.
If you have not yet had a consultation with Attorney Townsend for your Wisconsin or Illinois family court matter, we’d be happy to set up an appointment for you. Please call or text us at (815) 200-8802 to schedule a free consultation.