Attorney Retainer Agreement

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Table of contents

If you run a business that relies on legal services or support, you've likely come across a legal retainer agreement sample before. But what exactly is it, and why do you need one?

What is a Legal Retainer Agreement?

Put simply, a legal retainer agreement is a long-term contract between a client and a lawyer or law firm put in place to safeguard and secure the legal services of the attorney. These contracts are created to retain ongoing services for a fee called the retainer fee. A retainer agreement outlines the terms of the working relationship as it covers the scope of work, payment terms, communication protocols, and other critical details.

Why Do You Need an Attorney Retainer Agreement?

Having a solid legal retainer agreement in place is essential for several reasons. It helps establish clear expectations, prevent misunderstandings, and protect the interests of both parties. By outlining the scope of work and payment terms upfront, you can avoid disputes down the line and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Whether you're a lawyer looking to draft an agreement for your clients or a business owner seeking legal support, understanding the importance of an attorney retainer agreement can help you establish a strong foundation for a successful partnership.

Types of Retainer Fees

Retainer fees are an upfront payment made by clients to their attorneys to secure their services. Choosing the right type of retainer fee is an important decision that can have a significant impact on the cost and outcome of your legal matter. There are four basic types of retainer, including:

  1. Flat Retainer Fee
  2. Contingency Retainer Fee
  3. Hourly Retainer Fee
  4. Hybrid Retainer Fee

1. Flat Retainer Fee:

A flat retainer fee is a fixed amount that is paid upfront by the client, regardless of the number of hours the attorney works on the case. This type of retainer fee is commonly used for straightforward legal matters that have a clear scope of work, such as drafting a contract or preparing a will.

The main advantage of a flat retainer fee is that it provides clients with certainty and predictability regarding legal costs. This allows clients to budget for legal costs more effectively and avoid any financial surprises down the line.

2. Contingency Retainer Fee:

Under a contingency retainer fee, the lawyer agrees to take on the case without charging any upfront fees. Instead, the lawyer's fee is contingent on the outcome of the case - specifically, whether the client receives a settlement or award. If the client does not receive any compensation, the lawyer does not receive any fee.

This allows clients who may not have the financial resources to pay for legal services upfront to still have access to legal representation. Additionally, it provides an incentive for the lawyer to work hard and achieve a favorable outcome for the client, as their fee is directly tied to the client's success.

3. Hourly Retainer Fee:

Here, the client pays an upfront retainer fee that is held in trust by the attorney. The attorney then bills the client for their time and expenses as they work on the case, deducting the fees from the retainer as they are incurred.

An hourly retainer fee provides clients with a more detailed and accurate picture of the legal costs involved in their case. 

4. Hybrid Retainer Fee

A hybrid retainer fee is a type of fee structure that combines elements of both hourly and flat fee arrangements. With a hybrid retainer fee, the client pays an initial upfront fee, which is usually lower than the fee charged in a traditional hourly retainer agreement. This upfront fee provides the attorney with a guaranteed minimum payment for their services.

After the initial fee is paid, the attorney then bills the client at an hourly rate for any work performed beyond the scope of the initial fee. 

How do I write a retainer agreement?

While creating a retainer agreement may seem like a straightforward task, the reality is that the process can be downright god-awful and tedious. The reason for this is that a retainer agreement is a complex legal document that requires careful consideration of multiple factors, such as the scope of legal services, the fees and expenses involved, and the rights and obligations of both the lawyer and the client.

To begin with, creating a retainer agreement requires extensive communication between the lawyer and the client to discuss the scope of legal services. The first step in creating a retainer agreement is to establish the scope of legal services that will be provided. This includes defining the legal issues that will be addressed, the work that will be done, and the expected outcome.

The next step is to determine the fee structure and expenses associated with the legal services. This includes setting the hourly rate or flat fee for legal services and identifying any additional expenses that may be incurred, such as filing fees or expert witness fees.

The retainer amount is the upfront payment that the client must make to secure the services of the lawyer. This amount should then be determined based on the scope of legal services and the estimated fees and expenses.

Following this, other terms should be discussed and included in the retainer. Such as the payment terms and rights and obligations of the parties.  The retainer agreement should also address any potential conflicts of interest that may arise and include provisions for termination.

After the retainer agreement is drafted, it must be reviewed and approved by both the lawyer and the client. While it is important to ensure that the retainer agreement accurately reflects the terms of the legal representation and provides adequate protection for both parties, the process can be time-consuming and frustrating. 

What are the benefits of a legal retainer?

Retainer agreements are an essential tool for lawyers and clients alike, providing a range of benefits to both parties. Billing off of a retainer can be a profitable and efficient way for lawyers to manage their business and provide legal services to their clients. 


Here are some of the benefits offered by a retainer agreement:

Predictable income

A retainer agreement provides lawyers with a predictable income stream. By requiring clients to pay a retainer fee upfront, lawyers can better manage their cash flow and plan for future expenses.

Minimizes missed payments

With a retainer agreement, the client has already committed to paying for legal services, which can reduce the likelihood of missed payments. The retainer fee is held in trust by the lawyer and can be used to cover time and expenses as they are incurred.

Saves Time

Using business automations like Bonsai, retainer agreements saves a ton of time. With a retainer agreement in place, lawyers can set up automated billing and invoicing systems like Bonsai to streamline the business processes and manage their finances.

Is a Retainer Fee taxable?

Yes, a retainer fee is generally taxable income for lawyers. 

However, Bonsai Tax can help lawyers to minimize their tax burden by providing personalized tax advice, tax preparation services, and ongoing support. Bonsai Taxes save users on average, $5,600 in taxes annually, making Bonsai the clear choice for self-employed users.

Do I need an invoice for a legal retainer?

Yes, you should provide an invoice to clients for a legal retainer. Invoicing for retainers helps to ensure that both the lawyer and the client have a clear understanding of the fees that have been paid and the services that will be provided.

Providing a clear and detailed invoice for a legal retainer can help to minimize confusion and disputes between the lawyer and the client. It can also help the lawyer to maintain accurate financial records and ensure compliance with accounting and tax regulations.

Is a retainer the same as a contract?

No, a retainer agreement is a type of contract, but they are not the same thing.

A retainer agreement is a contract between a lawyer and a client that outlines the terms and conditions of the retainer fee and the scope of legal services that will be provided. On the other hand, a contract is a legal agreement between two or more parties that outlines the terms and conditions of their business relationship. 

While a retainer agreement is a type of contract, it is specific to the provision of legal services and does not cover other business arrangements. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid when creating a legal retainer

There are several common mistakes that can occur when creating a legal retainer agreement, which can lead to misunderstandings, disputes, and legal problems down the line. Here are some of the most common mistakes to avoid:

Payment terms/amounts

One mistake that lawyers often make is not being specific enough about the payment terms. For example, the retainer agreement may state that the client is required to pay a certain amount, but not specify how or when the payment is due. This can lead to confusion and disputes down the line.

To avoid these mistakes, lawyers should ensure that the payment terms and amounts in their retainer agreements are clear, specific, and address potential issues that may arise during the course of the legal representation.

Missing legal clauses 

Failure to include important legal clauses can result in the agreement being unenforceable or unclear, leading to disputes or legal problems down the line. It's important for lawyers to take the time to carefully draft their retainer agreements and ensure that all necessary legal clauses are included. 

Using pre-made agreements can help lawyers avoid such mistakes.


A solid legal retainer agreement is essential for lawyers to protect their interests, minimize misunderstandings, and ensure that they are fairly compensated for their services. Key elements of a good retainer agreement include clear payment terms, comprehensive legal clauses, and a detailed scope of services.

Bonsai's prewritten legal retainer agreement samples provide lawyers with customizable templates that include all the necessary legal clauses, saving time and ensuring that the agreement is legally sound. With Bonsai, lawyers can boost their profits significantly by streamlining their retainer agreement process and avoiding costly legal disputes.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Questions about this template.

Can I create my own retainer agreement?

Because retainers require custom terms and conditions it's always best to start with a legally-vetted agreement and customize your terms from the template.

Does Bonsai have Attorney Retainers?

Bonsai can provide you with custom attorney retainers catering to the legal industry as well as general retainers for ad hoc use cases.