A divorce retainer is an amount of money you pay up front for your attorney to begin working on your case. It is based on the projected amount of work it will take for the divorce attorney to represent you in your case. These are not the only legal fees you will incur during the divorce process, there will also be filing fees for documents filed with the court. When you pay the retainer, the attorney deposits the money into a Trust account which is established to hold client money. The money in the trust account still technically belongs to the clients and can only be transferred to the attorney’s business account when they perform work on your case and bill for it.
The attorney will provide you with a written retainer agreement if they require a retainer to work on your case. This agreement should clearly lay out the attorney’s hourly rate, associate (junior) attorneys’ hourly rates, paralegal hourly rates, and other standard rates for expenses that they typically incur during representation. Be sure to read the agreement fully and carefully and ask questions if you don’t understand something in the agreement. It’s always better to ask up front. Signing the retainer agreement does not mean that you cannot fire your attorney or that they cannot withdraw from your case. It does mean that you understand and agree to how the billing will be done regarding your case.
The retainer can be used for almost any expense incurred by the attorney in preparing your case, but is primarily to cover the attorney’s hourly rate he or she predicts it will take to work on your case. Things like copies, paying for service of process, parking fees near the courthouse, phone calls, depositions, etc. can all be billed to the retainer. You can also be billed for time the attorney’s paralegals and associate (junior) attorneys spend working on your case. Junior attorneys usually bill at a cheaper hourly rate than partners, and paralegals typically bill less than half of the rate of the attorney they work for. Secretarial and clerical staff usually do not bill their time.
Attorneys typically bill in either 15 or 6 minute increments, rounding up. For example, if your attorney bills in 15 minute increments and works on your divorce petition for one hour and eight minutes, he will bill you for one hour and fifteen minutes. Whenever the lawyer works on your case (e.g., drafting documents, phone calls, emails, etc. related to the case) or incurs expenses related to your case (e.g., document production, parking fees, postage) they make a note of it in your case file. Then, periodically, the attorney will add up the time spent on your case. Then the attorney bills for their time and expenses, drawing from the retainer.
So what happens if there is any money left in the retainer at the end of the case? Some attorneys note in their agreement the retainer, or a portion of it, may be non-refundable. As each divorce lawyer gets to set their own fees, make sure you understand the terms of the retainer agreement. Usually, though, any unused funds are returned to the client once all expenses have been billed and collected out of the retainer.