What Does a Lawyer Retainer Fee Cover?

One of the first steps in the divorce process is hiring a divorce lawyer. Once you have found a lawyer you trust and want to work with, you will need to pay their retainer fee

Generally, a retainer fee is an upfront payment to your divorce lawyer. This fee is used to secure their services and covers the cost of the lawyer’s time and expenses associated with your case. 

Think of it as a down payment on the legal services you will need during your divorce.

Retainer fees are determined based on the complexity of your case and the amount of time the attorney expects to spend on your case. 

What Costs are Billed Against The Lawyer’s Retainer Fee? 

Some of the most common costs that may be billed against a lawyer retainer fee include:

1. Attorney’s Fees 

Lawyers charge fees for their time and expertise in handling legal matters. The attorney’s fees in a divorce case are typically charged hourly. Attorney fees will be the biggest expense of your divorce case.

In hourly billing, the lawyer charges the client for the actual time spent working on the client’s legal matter. The hourly rate for the lawyer may vary depending on the lawyer’s experience, expertise, and the complexity of the legal case. 

The lawyer will track the time spent working on the client’s legal matters, including phone calls, emails, research, meetings, and court appearances.

2. Court Costs

These are expenses incurred by the lawyer in connection with a legal matter. Court costs can include filing fees, expert witness fees, deposition fees, and other expenses associated with litigation.

3. Administrative Expenses

These are expenses incurred by the lawyer for tasks such as copying, postage, and long-distance telephone calls. Do not be surprised if you are charged for every copy of paper made and every stamp used by the lawyer.

4. Travel Expenses

These are expenses incurred by the lawyer for travel related to the legal matter, such as airfare, mileage, hotel accommodations, and rental car expenses.

5. Paralegal Expenses

Paralegal time may be billed hourly, similar to how lawyers bill for their time. The hourly rate for paralegals is typically lower than the hourly rate for lawyers, making it a cost-effective way to handle specific tasks.

For example, if the lawyer’s hourly rate is $300, the paralegal’s hourly rate will be about half or $150.

How is a Retainer Invoiced?

When a lawyer works on a legal matter for a client who has paid a retainer, the lawyer will typically invoice the client monthly for the legal services provided. 

Here are the steps a lawyer may take to invoice a client against a retainer agreement:

1. The lawyer will keep track of time spent on the file

The lawyer will track the time spent on the client’s legal matters, including meetings, emails, research, drafting documents, and court appearances.

2. The lawyer will prepare an invoice

The lawyer will prepare an itemized invoice that details the legal services provided, the date the services were provided, the amount of time spent, and the hourly rate charged. The invoice may also include filing fees, photocopying, and travel expenses.

3. The Lawyer will apply the payment against the retainer 

The lawyer will apply the payment to the invoice against the retainer. The amount of the retainer payment will be subtracted from the total amount of the invoice. 

For example, if the client paid a $10,000 retainer, the lawyer will bill against the retainer monthly. If the lawyer did $2,500 of work during the month, the lawyer would charge $2,500 against the retainer. The $2,500 will be billed against the retainer, and the new retainer balance will be reduced to $7,500. 

The Retainer Fee May Need to Be Refilled

Depending on the complexity of your case, the retainer fee may need to be refilled. Once your retainer fee has been depleted, you will need to pay an additional retainer fee to continue receiving legal services.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much should a retainer fee be for a divorce?

A: The amount of a retainer fee for a divorce can vary widely depending on several factors, including the complexity of the case, the geographic location, the attorney’s experience and reputation, and the client’s ability to pay. 

Generally, a retainer fee for a divorce can range from $1,500 to $25,000.

Q: Do you get a retainer fee back?

A: Whether or not you get a retainer fee back in a divorce case will depend on the terms of your retainer agreement with your attorney. 

A retainer fee is paid in advance to cover the legal fees associated with a specific matter, such as a divorce case. 

As the attorney provides services, they will bill against the retainer, and when the retainer balance is depleted, the client may need to replenish the retainer.

In general, if the retainer fee amount exceeds the amount of legal fees charged by the attorney, the excess amount will be refunded to the client. 

However, if the legal fees charged exceed the amount of the retainer fee, the client will need to pay the difference.

Q: How long is a lawyer retainer fee good for? 

A: In most divorce cases, a retainer fee will cover the entirety of the legal matter, and the retainer agreement will specify the scope of the work that the retainer fee will cover. 

Once the divorce is resolved, the retainer fee will be billed. If the retainer has not been depleted, the used portion will be returned to the client. 

In other cases, a retainer fee may be paid periodically, such as monthly or quarterly, to retain the lawyer’s services for ongoing legal matters. 

In this case, the retainer agreement may specify a set period of time, such as one year, during which the retainer fee will remain in effect. 

The retainer agreement may also specify the circumstances under which the retainer will be replenished, such as when the retainer balance falls below a certain threshold.

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Tim McDuffey is a practicing attorney in the State of Missouri. Tim is a licensed member of the Missouri Bar and Missouri Bar Association.

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