When you hire a lawyer, you should expect to make a big up-front payment. This payment is called a retainer, and virtually all reputable family law attorneys charge one based on what they think the minimum cost of litigating the case is.
But there are two types of retainers: refundable retainers and non-refundable retainers.
Non-refundable retainers are deemed “earned” by the attorney the moment you write the check, before any work is done. While certain professional rules apply to the use of those funds that might eventually entitle you to a refund, there is nothing in the contract that allows it.
It is generally extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get a refund of that money, even if you are later unsatisfied with the lawyer’s services, or change your mind about pursuing your case.
Non-refundable retainers are viewed by many people as the thing that’s wrong with the law. If the lawyer has already been paid, what incentive does s/he have to actually do any work? Every minute spent on your case cuts in to their profit margin. Therefore, clients who pay non-refundable retainers often experience a lack of attention to their file, no returned calls, unexplained delays in their case, followed by intense pressure to settle the case with little explanation as to why settlement is in their interest. They may also be surprised by additional court costs and fees that they never expected to pay.
Refundable retainers remedy all of these problems. When you pay a refundable retainer, the money is placed in a trust account, and your attorney becomes the trustee for those funds. This imposes additional duties to account for and appropriately spend those funds on your behalf. If we don’t, then we can lose our law license and even be prosecuted criminally.
With a refundable retainer, we can only draw the money if we can document that we’ve spent the time or advanced the money to earn it. We must send you periodic statements showing you what we did, and answer any questions you have. If there’s a dispute, we must leave the money in the trust account until that dispute is resolved. Perhaps most importantly, if you are dissatisfied with our performance, or if you change your mind, we have to return the unearned portion of the retainer to you. Very few law firms have refundable retainers, and even fewer have 100% refundable retainers.
In fact, Held Law Firm might be the only law firm in Knoxville that still charges a 100% refundable retainer. It is part of our commitment to ensuring that we are accountable to our clients for our work, and to transparency in the litigation process, all the way through – including transparency and fairness in our relationships with all our clients.