Written by attorney Jeffrey Knipmeyer

What is a Retainer Agreement?

When you decide who to hire to be your divorce attorney, you will be asked to sign a “Retainer Agreement" (also called an “Engagement Agreement" or “Engagement Letter") and to pay a retainer fee. What is a Retainer Agreement and what does it say?

What is a Retainer Agreement? When you hire your attorney, you are creating an attorney-client relationship. This relationship creates certain rights and obligations – for both you and for your attorney. In order to make sure that both of you understand your relationship with one another, a written agreement is signed by both of you. This agreement is called a Retainer Agreement.

Contents of a typical Retainer Agreement. The Retainer Agreement that you sign with your attorney should be detailed, so that you understand the terms of your attorney’s representation of you. The more detailed the Retainer Agreement, the easier it will be to resolve any conflict that may arise between you and your attorney. A typical retainer agreement should, at a minimum, contain the following:

  1. Your name and the name of your attorney (and his or her firm);

  2. The purpose for the representation (example: “to represent me in negotiating, settling or litigating the dissolution of my marriage");

  3. The amount of the retainer fee;

  4. Whether or not the retainer will be refunded if the entire amount is not used;

  5. How you will be billed for all fees and expenses, including attorneys fees, copying charges, filing fees, etc. The agreement should tell you how often you will be billed and when you must pay. The agreement should also set forth the procedure for you to question any charge that you believe to be incorrect.

  6. If you are hiring your attorney on a flat fee basis, then the agreement should specify the flat fees. If you are hiring your attorney on an hourly basis, then the agreement should set forth the hourly billing rates for everyone who will be working on your case (example: $300/hour for partners; $150/hour for associates; $75/hour for paralegals).

  7. The agreement should specify that both you and your attorney have the right to terminate the relationship.

  8. In Illinois, the Retainer Agreement must have attached to it a “Statement of Client’s Rights and Responsibilities." Make sure that the Retainer Agreement that you sign has this attached and that you read and understand the terms. This Statement describes the following issues between you and your attorney: (1) written engagement agreement, (2) representation, (3) communication, (4) ethical conduct, (5) fees, and (6) disputes.

Know what you are signing before you sign it. A Retainer Agreement can contain other provisions but, at a minimum, it should contain these provisions. Make sure you understand all of the terms of the Retainer Agreement – never sign anything that you do not understand. If you do not understand all of the terms, ask your attorney to explain them to you. If you still do not understand, then rewrite the term(s) that you do not understand, cross out the terms, or do not sign the agreement.

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