A retainer agreement is necessary for several reasons. First, it outlines the scope of your lawyer's work. Second, it is a contract on the fee. Lawyer performs "X" and gets pain "Y." It is a nightmare for all if the agreement is not clear. The lawyer does not always necessarily need to sign it. For example, if the client later balks at the fee once a settlement is made or a bill gets too high, the lawyer is protected as it was the client that signed the document. However, just to be sure, it is nice to have the lawyer sign to just in case the client needs to hold the lawyer to various terms within the agreement (like fully performing the service to which they've agreed). However, most lawyers want to get their fee so the work usually gets done.
In California, written agreements are required for any fee greater than $1000. Some attorneys do fee agreements and some use letter agreements. It depends on the type of case and the length of representation. If you provide more information, I can answer your question in greater detail.
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If a written fee agreement is required, it must be signed by both the attorney and the client. However, that does not mean you're home free. An attorney who does not have a written fee agreement is still entitled to a reasonable fee. You do not necessarily get all your money back (you may actually owe money) and there are exceptions to the requirement of a written fee agreement in a non-contingency case. If the answer is important to you, you should personally consult an attorney for a better answer to your question.
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