Retainers and legal fees: Introduction to a well-written retainer

I have the misfortune of not being a fool. From a very early age I have detected what those about me thought they hid from me. If I could have been habitually imposed upon, instead of habitually discerning the truth, I might have lived as smoothly as most fools do. – Dickens, Little Dorrit

We borrowed the first retainer letter I worked on from another law firm. Over time, that basic floating-around-law-firms retainer mutated, as I’d add or amend clauses and clarify the language.

Once, when a lawyer in our firm tried foolishly to bypass me by printing out his own retainer agreement and sending it posthaste to the client, I had to re-write it and send it again, with an apologetic letter I trusted was embarrassing to the lawyer.

Why? Because in his retainer letter, the lawyer had described the contingency fee as “one third (30 percent).” I took pleasure explaining to this lawyer how percentages were derived from fractions, and then demonstrating how much potential money he’d just handed away.

He was so pissed. I was so Fräulein Schadenfreude.

(We didn’t like each other.)

Agreements and even contingency fees did vary once in a while. One client asked that a percentage of our fee be given to the non-profit agency that had gotten him out of prison. His request was granted and inscribed in his retainer letter.

So, as my cousin Janet discovered years ago, everything is negotiable.

Next: An entire well-written retainer letter.


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