What Does it Mean to Have a Lawyer on Retainer?

When someone threatens to call their lawyer, he or she could very well have a lawyer "on retainer." To have a lawyer on retainer means that the client pays a lawyer a small amount on a regular basis. In return, the lawyer performs some legal services whenever the client needs them.

Retainers are most useful for business that need constant legal work, but do not have enough money to hire a lawyer full time. Also, individuals who are likely to need a lot of legal work might want to have a lawyer on retainer.

Before you hire an attorney on retainer...

If having a lawyer on call sounds appealing, stop and think about your legal situation first:

  • What will you use the attorney for? Unless a major accident happens, most people 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 law suits. 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 a lawyer is "retained," that means that someone has hired her, and the money paid to the attorney is known as the retainer. The agreement signed when someone hires an attorney is called the retainer agreement.

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

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