What Is a Retainer and How Does It Work

Updated January 16, 2024
16 min read
What Is a Retainer and How Does It Work


Before you hire a law firm for legal services, one of the main things you will discuss with the attorneys is legal fees. You have to make financial sense of how much money you will pay with an upfront payment, an hourly payment, a lump sum, and so forth.

But what does a retainer mean?

Many people think that a retainer and retainer agreement is precisely the same. But in reality, you might pay an attorney $500 upfront in exchange for hiring them to give you legal advice on one case. This amount that you pay is called the retainer, and with that money, you retain their services or hire them and their services. If your legal situation is complicated and you need legal services from them beyond the initial advice they give you, then you might have to create a legal retainers agreement and pay them more. 

What Is a Retainer Lawyer?

A retainer lawyer is a lawyer you have ready and willing to help you with your legal cases. When you hire a retainer lawyer, you give them a deposit that goes into a particular account, and your agreement with that lawyer, explains how much you will pay them and what type of work they should do for you based on that retainer. The term lawyer retainer meaning is integral to understanding this arrangement. 

How Do Retainers Work for Lawyers?

Understanding how do legal retainers work is crucial when entering into an agreement with an attorney. Using a retainer attorney, work gets done as it usually would. 

If you are using a lump sum, your attorney will do work on your case or project and then take the money for those costs out of the lump sum. If you hire them with a general retainer, which means you pay them every month regardless of whether you use their services, the work they do will vary based on the terms of your agreement.

For example, if you hire a law firm and you pay them a retainer every month, they might deposit that money into an account and, when the need arises, take money from that trust account. 

So, if you have a lawyer on retainer for your business every month and you have paid them $1,000 every month for five years, when a case does arise, you have $60,000 in that account, which you can put toward the costs of the case. But this is just an example and is entirely contingent upon the type of agreement you have. Comprehending the issue of “how does an attorney retainer work” helps to manage expectations and ensure a smooth attorney-client relationship.

How Much Does It Cost To Have a Lawyer on Retainer?

With a retainer lawyer, work is based on the type of retainer you get:

General retainers

General retainer fee, sometimes called a monthly retainer, is a fee you pay for a specific length of time rather than for a specific job or project. Basically, with a general retainer, you want to have attorneys or law firms readily available to discuss anything that arises and any questions you have. 

For example, a law firm might charge you $1,000 per month as a general retainer fee. In exchange for this fee, the firm makes it a priority to be available for you to discuss whatever legal questions or issues arise for that month. 

This is a good practice for businesses who want to make sure that in the event there is a complication with their employees, they can turn to the attorney. Similarly, if a company has attorneys on retainer, if the business gets hit with a workers’ compensation lawsuit or discrimination lawsuit, they can turn to the law firm they have hired.

Retaining fee

You pay a retaining fee in full in front. In this situation, an attorney has a separate trust account into which that retaining fee is deposited. Then, as they continue to work on your case or project, they draw money from that account to cover the expenses. If the lump sum you have deposited runs out before the end of the project, you might have to increase the retainer, and if there is any money left over after the project, you get it back.

For instance, if an attorney charges $300 per hour and expects your case to take about 10 hours, they might ask for a retainer fee of $3,000 upfront. This is a good practice for businesses or individuals with only one major project or situation for which they need attorneys. They don’t necessarily want to pay attorneys every month for the entirety of their business do have a legal situation at present where it makes sense to deposit a lump sum upfront.

Special retainer

A one-time flat fee paid particularly for a single case is called a special retainer. Many states prohibit a special retainer because you have to stick with the same attorney until they have finished the case, and this can interfere with any situation where you want to fire and replace the attorney.

In general, the fees might be as low as $500 or as high as $5,000. Legally, the retainer fee you pay could be whatever an attorney requests, and it is usually based on their hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours they expect to spend on your case.

Should I Have a Lawyer on Retainer?

For lawyer retainer fees, you should consider hiring a lawyer on retainer if you have a business. A retained attorney can help you look over your contracts to recognize unfair issues, vulnerabilities, or hindrances. 

Having a business lawyer on retainer can save you time and money should litigation arise. It can also help you circumvent litigation by having an attorney there to answer any questions or provide legal guidance before situations get worse.

What To Consider Before Hiring an Attorney on Retainer

Before you hire an attorney on retainer, consider:

What does having a lawyer on retainer mean?

Having a lawyer on retainer means you've secured their services on an ongoing basis. It involves paying a lawyer an upfront fee, called a retainer fee, typically held in a trust account, which is then used to cover future legal services as they are provided. When a client asks, “What is the purpose of a retainer for a lawyer?” they should understand that this arrangement offers them immediate access to legal advice or representation when necessary.  

Are they experienced?

Due to the way in which retainer fees are calculated, you might want someone more experienced, especially if you are hiring them for your business. Just because somebody offers a less expensive retainer fee does not mean they are the better option. You should evaluate attorneys on retainer the same way you assess any attorney you would otherwise hire for your personal or professional needs. 

Check that they have experience handling cases like yours or working in your particular industry. If you are hiring an attorney on retainer to help you check things like employee contracts when you hire new people, make sure the attorney you hired has business experience.

Do you have a legitimate business need for a retainer lawyer?

If you are an individual looking to hire a retainer lawyer to help you with issues involving your homeowners or auto insurance, check your policy. Many insurance policies say that they will cover the cost of an attorney if you are in an accident. 

You don’t need to pay extra money for a separate attorney if you have such a policy. Similarly, if you are a union member or an employee with a large company, having a lawyer to help you with employer problems might be part of your benefits.


Overall, under the term retainer meaning law, paying a retainer signals that you have formally engaged an attorney's services. The funds you provide are the retainer, held as prepayment for the legal assistance your attorney will provide. 

By signing a retainer's fee agreement, both parties commit to a professional relationship where the attorney agrees to work for the client in exchange for compensation. A clear understanding of how does a retainer work is crucial for fostering a smooth attorney-client relationship, ensuring the client gets the legal help they need and the lawyer receives guaranteed payment for services rendered.

Article by
Yevheniia Savchenko

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Product Content Manager at Lawrina. Yevheniia creates user interface copies for Lawrina products, writes release notes, and helps customers get the best user experience from all Lawrina products. Also, Yevheniia is in charge of creating helpful content on legal template pages (Lawrina Templates) and up-to-date information on US law (Lawrina Guides). In her spare time, Yevheniia takes up swimming, travels, and goes for a walk in her home city.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the product or UX content for Lawrina, feel free to contact Yevheniia directly at y.savchenko@lawrina.org or connect with her on LinkedIn.