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The retainer: your agreement with your Solicitor

The retainer agreement - what information should be in it
The retainer agreement is a written agreement which sets out the terms of the solicitor-client relationship. It should contain essential information including what the solicitor's fees are and how he or she is to be paid.
Some solicitors use formal contracts running many pages in length; others use a simple letter outlining the agreement. The form of the agreement isn't really that important -- what matters is that it clearly explains certain key issues, such as how the solicitor's fees will be paid, who will pay for the costs (disbursements) of the ongoing case and who will be working on the case.

Why you need a written agreement
Most disputes between solicitors and clients are about how much money the client owes the solicitor. Having a written set of terms setting these out is therefore useful to avoid these kinds of problems. That way, you can simply consult the contract rather than arguing over who agreed to what.
There may be other important issues that you want recorded in the agreement, such as who will argue your case if it goes to trial or the circumstances in which either you or the solicitor can end the relationship. Second, the agreement can clarify the relationship you expect to have with your solicitor. For example, some agreements state that the solicitor will communicate regularly with the client about developments in the case, or that the client will respond promptly to requests from the solicitor. Finally, putting things in writing will force you and your solicitor to be very clear about your agreement.

What the retainer should include
First and foremost, the retainer agreement must explain the solicitor's fees and how they are to be paid. The agreement should also explain what fee structure will be used. Solicitors typically charge in the following ways:

  • Hourly rate: The most common form of solicitor compensation is the hourly rate, which can range anywhere from £100 to £300 or more. If the solicitor's office uses paralegals, you should be charged less for their time.
  • Fixed fee: Solicitors may agree to carry out work for a fixed fee, or agree to cap their costs at a certain level. This presents you with the advantage of knowing from the outset how much you will need to pay for the work.
  • Conditional Fee Agreements ('no win no fee'): Sometimes the solicitor may agree to take on your case on a 'no win no fee' basis. This is also known as a Conditional Fee Agreement. What this means is that the solicitor agrees to defer his payment until the case is resolved at trial or settles. In litigation, when a party wins its case, the losing party usually has to pay for the winning party's legal costs. Provided you win the case, your solicitor's legal fees would be reimbursed by the other side. If, however, the solicitor for some reason was not successful and the case failed, you would not have to pay for your own solicitor's fees. This method of paying solicitor's legal fees allows solicitors to represent people who have been wronged but cannot afford to pay a solicitor.

If you're paying a solicitor by the hour, the agreement should set out the hourly rates of the solicitor and anyone else in the solicitor's office who might work on the case. It should state how often you will be billed, how much detail the bill will include and how long you have to pay the bill. If the solicitor will require you to pay a payment on account of costs, the agreement should include the amount of this payment.
If you are entering a Conditional Fee Agreement ("no win no fee" agreement) with the solicitor, the agreement should specify what the 'success fee' is.
The agreement should also explain how litigation costs (disbursements) will be handled. These costs include court fees, barrister's fees, fees charged by expert witnesses, private investigators, process servers or stenographers, copying costs, travel expenses or messenger fees, for example. Not surprisingly, litigation costs can really mount up -- especially if a case goes all the way to trial. Your agreement should spell out which of these costs you'll have to pay, which (if any) your solicitor will pick up and when you'll be expected to pay them. Some solicitors who have agreed to take on your case on a 'no win no fee' basis cases may front the money for these costs however this is not always the case; if the client wins, the solicitor is reimbursed by the other side paying his costs, but a client who loses has to figure out some way to pay back the solicitor.
Although fees and disbursements are the most important part of the retainer agreement, there are other terms that you should look out for, such as:

    • Extent of the representation: The agreement should make clear that the solicitor will represent the client in all legal proceedings, up to and including trial. Some solicitors don't handle appeals or other post-trial proceedings (such as judgment collection) -- if this is true of your solicitor, the agreement should say so.
    • Who will do the work: The agreement should specify which solicitor will handle the case personally.
    • Ending the relationship: Some agreements set out how each party can end the relationship. For example, an agreement might state that the solicitor can quit at any time, or that the solicitor may only quit under specified circumstances.
    • Working together: Some agreements explain how the parties expect to work together. For example, an agreement might spell out which decisions the solicitor can make alone and which require the client's approval, or might require the client to be honest with the solicitor.

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