When you pay a family law attorney a retainer, you are paying them money up front to begin working on your case. The attorney sets the retainer amount based on the projected costs of work on the case. While the retainer fee can go toward several things related to the attorney’s work and expenses incurred on your case, the divorce lawyer is held to a very high legal and ethical standards when it comes to using your retainer money.
The retainer money you pay initially goes into a trust account, not the attorney’s business or personal account. The attorney will then bill your account, usually on a monthly basis, for the work performed and any eligible costs incurred. They will then transfer that amount from the trust account to their business account. Only after the attorney has earned the money can they take it out of the trust account.
If the attorney is going to require you to pay a retainer fee, they must provide you with a written retainer agreement. 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 divorce 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.
Retainer fees cover the attorney’s hourly rate, but can also be used for almost any other expense incurred by the attorney in handling your Alabama divorce. 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.
If the retainer is on the verge of being depleted, the attorney will let you know. Either a new fee must be deposited, or you can give permission to receive a monthly bill for any overages. Some attorneys note in their agreement the retainer, or a portion of it, may be non-refundable. As each local divorce attorney 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.