Retainer agreements are a common part of law firm life, particularly when the matters at hand can take a significant length of time. Yet, retainer agreements are extremely important in small matters, too. If you’re not using one for small or simple matters, you could find yourself in an extremely time consuming (and often expensive) legal ethics investigation.
Not All Jurisdictions Require a Retainer Agreement for Small Matters But…
Like practically every other aspect of law firm life, retainer agreement use is generally covered by the rules in your jurisdiction. The rules may tell you how much in fees a matter must generate before you actually need to use a retainer agreement.
The use of a retainer agreement to outline exactly what you’ll do for a client is extremely useful even if you don’t really need to create one. Think about the amount of money you’d earn on a project that would take you two hours to complete. Now think about how much money you could spend if the client reported you to the bar and you needed a lawyer to defend your actions. Legal ethics complaints aren’t necessarily known for their being quick.
The use of a retainer agreement for a small matter that clearly outlines what you’ll do could save you money and the stress of a bar investigation.
Retainer Agreements Can Serve as Part of Your Client File
Traffic tickets, one hour contract consultations, and other short interactions may not leave you with a detailed client file. Sure, you might have pages of notes, but those could take time to dig through to find what you need. Your notes may not really outline everything you said you’d do for the client. A retainer agreement will explain the agreement you entered into with the client. The copy, placed in the client’s file, can serve to refresh your memory or even act as evidence if you’re defending yourself from an ethics charge.
It Creates a Record of Your Agreement to Serve as Counsel
You’ve no doubt read or heard horror stories about members of the public that believed a lawyer agreed to represent them simply because they answered a question. Making a habit of using retainer agreements even for small issues can help show your office has a habit of using retainer agreements with active clients (regardless of the matter; and it’s a very good idea to use non-engagements letters as well).
Create an office-wide policy that any matter you’re taking on must include a signed retainer agreement.
An Ounce of Prevention
Taking small steps to protect your practice (such as always using a retainer agreement) can help you prevent an ethics charge (or make it easier to defend). Your retainer agreement should outline what you’re doing after the initial meeting, what you’ll be paid, and how the client will be updated on their matter. It’s definitely worth the small investment in time to protect your practice in the future!