When hiring a lawyer to assist you with your Family Law matter, whether it is a divorce, setting up or varying child support or spousal support, or having a separation agreement completed, most, if not all, will have their client sign a retainer agreement to solidify the contract between the lawyer and client (in fact be weary of those lawyers who rely on a smile and a handshake). Retainer agreements are put in place because the relationship between a lawyer and their client can be one of the most important and trusting relationships a client will ever create. The retainer agreement is the cornerstone of that relationship and while some can be lengthy and intimidating, there are usually reasons to support such an in depth document.
The retainer agreement is more than a simple contract of employment for services, it will typically explain procedures and expectations that the client will need to be aware of in future dealings with their lawyer and the legal system as their file progresses. It also sets out expectations as to the billing procedures of the lawyer and a breakdown of their fees, including any requirements for an initial retainer deposit to get the file going. The retainer agreement and the initial deposit should NOT be confused as a bill or an expectation as to the total costs of what the lawyer’s fees will be to “fix” or complete the client’s legal matter. While retainer amounts range from lawyer to lawyer, unless the Retainer Agreement specifically states that the retainer amount is a onetime flat fee amount to be billed for a specific service, it should be considered as a down payment or deposit with the lawyer to ensure that they have funds in their trust account as the matter proceeds.
The most common complaint from clients is that the fee structure or billing structure has not been explained to them by their lawyer. This is why it is so important to review the retainer letter at the initial phase and for clients to ask questions. Most of the time the retainer agreement itself holds the answers as to not only fee structuring and payment options but also what the lawyer’s hourly rate is, what some of the basic disbursement fees are and also what expectations form the lawyer client relationship (this includes the conduct of both the client and the lawyer, issues with getting forms and documents into the lawyer when requested, etc.). It is much easier to establish realistic expectations at the beginning of a file then to try and rectify a miscommunication or assumption made by either the client or the lawyer months into a matter when bills can begin to pile up.
While your lawyer will be your greatest asset in reviewing and explaining court orders, formal offers/agreements and other legal documents, it is important when retaining your lawyer to make sure you understand the terms of your retainer agreement and the expectations of the relationship between you and your lawyer. Ask questions when there are any uncertainties and never make assumptions.