A retainer fee is the fee which detains an attorney for legal counsel. With this fee, the attorney is certain of the seriousness of your intentions and can take your case to heart. A retainer fee may be used to guarantee that a lawyer will be available to take a particular case and could mean that the lawyer would have to turn down other cases in order to remain available. This is the most traditional method of billing clients. Both unearned and earned retainer fees may be charged. The unearned type is a sum of money which the client provides to the attorney. Lawyers normally request retainer fees from clients to assure payment (criminal defense, for example). The retainer fees are sometimes kept in the lawyer's trust account in the name of the client. It is not the lawyer's money until it is earned.This money is drawn upon as the attorney works and billing hours are incurred. Then it becomes a cash advance retainer. An earned retainer is one which belongs to the attorney when the payment is made and funds become immediately available to the law firm for costs incurred. Earned retainers may be pure, case or retainers for general representation. The pure retainer is one which is a sum of money which the client pays to the lawyer or law firm to be certain the attorney will be available to the client throughout the year and that the law office will not accept any clients with cases that are adversarial. A case retainer is a nonrefundable fee that a client pays to a law office as an inducement for legal work to be performed for the client. What this really means is that the client is offering additional money to entice the attorney to take the case. A retainer for general representation is one which is paid in contemplation of everything, such as ongoing representation, except for the actual litigation which occurs.
Retainers are distinguished from contingent fees, in which the lawyer is paid a percentage of the client's recovery, hourly fees, based on the amount of time it takes to work on a case, and flat rate fees, which is the sum charged to complete the work on a client's case from beginning to end.