Do I need a lawyer on retainer? What does that even mean?



I frequently get two questions from people concerning retainers:  1) How much does it cost to retain our office and 2) What does it even mean to have a lawyer on retainer? Unless you are on an episode of Suits or you are running a multi-national corporation, it does not mean much. The vast majority of lawyers, and the vast majority of matters with a lawyer, will be handled and billed on a case by case basis. This is not to say that your lawyer (Halling & Cayo included) will not ask for a deposit before starting to working on your matter, but it will almost always be specific and related to the task at hand.

The more important questions are how do you establish a relationship such that you can feel like you can count on an attorney as “your lawyer,” and why is that important?

How do I establish a relationship with a lawyer?

Put simply, work with one. This can be as simple as using a lawyer to form your business or review your employment contract. You might be able to muddle through formation of your business on your own or figure the contract is probably fine as written, but having a lawyer do it for you will save you time, will ensure it is done right, and will have the added benefit of starting the relationship with a lawyer that you may need in the future.

There is an old saying that an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Often times, working with a lawyer can help you avoid a bad situation, saving you from future headaches. As lawyers, we try and work with our clients to solve problems and ideally, set you up to avoid problems from even arising in the first place. My best client relationships are those in which I am regularly consulted on various business or other issues to help navigate and prevent problems. A well written contract, anticipating and resolving a dispute before it arises, or just steering a client away from a decision fraught with potential liability is often worth far more than finding a zealous litigation advocate after the fact. I am always reminded of, and guided by, a quote from Abraham Lincoln regarding advice to lawyers about litigation:

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.” – Abraham Lincoln

My goal is to make sure that we are helping you make decisions based on a sound cost-benefit analysis not raw emotion or scare mongering. We have no need to prod you into litigation if it is not in your best interests, this is a relationship business, and as Mr. Lincoln says, “there will still be business enough.” If a dispute rises to the point of litigation, so be it, we will prosecute your matter with all of the diligence, perseverance, and skill we can muster.  However, if we go into litigation only after heeding the advice above, and trying to resolve it without a court battle, then we will know that we have exhausted our efforts to make a decision based on business judgment, not raw emotion or vindictiveness. The reality is that the wheels of justice turn slowly and when legal fees and your commitment of time begin to escalate, the joy of  putting the adverse party through their paces in court wears off quickly..

Why do I want an established relationship with a lawyer?

Other than the fact that it is fun to drop into conversation something about “my lawyer,” or “my lawyer says,” the reality is that your business’ success will be built on the ability to create relationships with people in other business. A pressing legal matter will rarely be something that is planned or anticipated. Often it is something that must be dealt with immediately to avoid spiraling out of control. I regularly get calls from potential clients that have an emergency legal matter. The reality is that when I receive this call, I know that it is going to take additional time to get to know a new person and their business before I will be able to help.  It is often a lot harder to justify pushing currently pending matters aside or asking my current clients to wait on something so that I can step into an emergency for someone that I have no relationship with. On the other hand, when a client that I have worked with before calls me up and tells me about some new and pressing issue that has arisen, I do whatever I can to help because our previous relationship means that I know the client, I know their business,  a file is already open in our office, and I am able to get right to work solving the client’s problem, rather than having to focus on the mundane details of establishing a formal new attorney/client relationship. Further, I believe that existing clients get better value as it takes less time for us to understand an issue and to start working on it. In a service that charges by the hour, already knowing you and your business means we can focus right away on the matter at hand, saving you time and money.

While you may think that whatever item you have in front of you is not worth hiring a lawyer, or you are simply intimidated by the prospect of trying to find someone to work with, remember that you would rather engage in the search for a lawyer you like and trust when you are not faced with a pressing emergency. Don’t worry about getting a lawyer “on retainer,” concern yourself instead with finding someone that you can establish a long term relationship.  That way if anything comes up, you have someone you know and trust to turn to for help and guidance.