Why do I have to pay a retainer? What is it for and how does it work?

Attorneys use retainers as advance payment for their services. Family law cases are unpredictable. Sometimes, parties have minimal conflict and quickly resolve all issues in their case. Other times, parties have to endure extensive litigation before they reach a resolution. For that reason, attorneys charge an hourly rate for their services and require payment before service.

The hourly rate is generally based on the experience level of the attorney and the attorney’s overhead. However, even when different attorneys charge the same hourly rate, the cost to the client may be significantly different for the same services. For example, let’s say attorney A and attorney B each charge $250.00 per hour. If attorney A charges in 6-minute increments and attorney B charges in 15-minute increments, a 5-minute phone call will be charged as 6 minutes or 15 minutes, respectively. This means attorney A bills $25.00 and attorney B bills $62.50 for the same 5-minute phone call. This can amount to a significant difference over the life of the client’s case.

In addition, attorneys usually charge reduced rates for the work of office staff, including assistants and law clerks. It is important to ask how much you will be charged for other people working on your case.

Finally, attorneys may differ on what activities they charge a client for. Some attorneys charge for every activity they do for a client including receiving mail (i.e. opening an envelope), drafting a bill, taking a payment, etc. Some attorneys charge their full hourly rate for travel time while others charge a reduced rate. When you consult with an attorney, it is important to understand the fee structure of the office and how you will be charged.

The retainer amount is based on the type of case and how many hours an attorney anticipates the case taking. The retainer is placed in the attorney’s IOLTA (escrow) account. The money has not yet been earned by the attorney. As the attorney performs services, the attorney will pay themselves with the retainer. If the case ends and money remains in the retainer account, the unearned funds are returned to the client. If the case continues, the attorney will require that additional funds be added to the retainer. Some attorneys require that the retainer be maintained at all times, others require replenishment after the retainer is depleted to a certain amount. This is another question to ask the attorney before engaging their services.

Kellner Green utilizes electronic billing software. We time our activities related to your case including court appearances, phone calls, drafting documents, etc. and will document what services were provided during that time. Each month, you will receive a detailed invoice that states the number of hours worked, the details related to the work, and the total cost of services for the month. That amount will then be paid with your retainer. In addition to the services provided by the attorney, other expenses may be included on the invoice, including filing fees and other costs. Other expenses, such as the cost of mediation, will be paid by you directly at the time of mediation.

About Abigail Green

Abigail Green is an attorney based in Louisville, KY. She is a founding partner of Kellner Green, PLLC and practices primarily in the areas of family and divorce law.