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Is non-refundable retainer refundable?

Van Nuys, CA |

I am representing myself in a lawsuit with an motion hearing next week and trial in Dec. Last week, I signed a retainer with a lawyer so he could render his service to assist me now until I sign the sub form later to have him represent me in trial. I gave him $3000. This week, he refused to assist me in pro per the motion hearing. He would not render his service or give me legal advice until he was officially my lawyer. I intend to remain in pro per until trial so I cancel our contract. He returned $2000 and kept $1000 saying it was non-refundable according to our retainer agreement. Can I sue him for the money back when the retainer agreement stated that amount dispute is to be resolved with Bar Association fee dispute program? Is the contract voided due to his failure to perform?

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Attorney answers 4

Best Answer

Lawyers are not allowed to make fees non-refundable in CA. This is a blatant violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. See CRPC 3-700(D)(2). I would write the lawyer a letter advising him/her that unless you get that $1000 back, you will pursue a complaint with the state bar.

I have added the complaint form link at the bottom of this answer.
Best of luck.

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You are both bound by the terms of your agreement. It *sounds* like he was not obligated to perform on your other matter, but perhaps could have done so for client relation's sake. You should consider trying the fee dispute resolution. But if the agreement says there is a $1k non-refundable fee, then you are probably bound by the agreement. I have seen a similar agreement with a $10 fee upheld by the court. In fact in that case, the attorney somehow got $16k, without having done much work at all. I call these "rock star contracts." I do not use them, but many attorneys do. In essence, you are paying for the right to "reserve their services."

James Frederick

*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER I am licensed to practice law in the State of Michigan and have offices in Wayne and Ingham Counties. My practice is focused in the areas of estate planning and probate administration. I am ethically required to state that the above answer does not create an attorney/client relationship. These responses should be considered general legal education and are intended to provide general information about the question asked. Frequently, the question does not include important facts that, if known, could significantly change the answer. Information provided on this site should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney that practices in your state. The law changes frequently and varies from state to state. If I refer to your state's laws, you should not rely on what I say; I just did a quick Internet search and found something that looked relevant that I hoped you would find helpful. You should verify and confirm any information provided with an attorney licensed in your state.


Yes, you can sue.


You can probably sue, you can ask for fee arbitration. If he did any work at all, he may be able to justify the $1000 fee, even if someone decides it was not non-refundable.
Take the agreement and any other documents related to that attorney to another attorney for a consultation.

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