Simplify Your Retainer Agreement

When I took my first case, I used a retainer that I found in the back of a practice manual. It was 9 pages if I used 10-point Times New Roman. Even I did not understand it all. I soon whittled it down to a 3- or 4-page retainer that was a little better, but I am pretty sure most clients took my word for its contents, then stared at the pages for a few minutes.

My current retainers are all one page or less, 11-point Georgia, with plenty of white space for readability. Your retainer is a sign that you understand how to communicate, that you are straightforward, and that you have nothing to hide. There is no reason your retainer should be longer than one page.

Here is my generic flat-fee retainer agreement. It has all the essential elements, although I haven’t tried to anticipate every possible situation. I focus on the most-important ones. The description and the fee are the keys, and we always use detailed descriptions so that everybody knows just what we agree to do in exchange for the fee.

I’ve heard that a local personal injury firm uses a one-sentence retainer, something like “Client agrees to pay Law Firm one-third of the recovery, after subtracting costs.” For my own contingent-fee retainer, I go a bit further, in part because I think the extra length adds clarity, not confusion. But it is still only one page, and my clients have no difficulty understanding it

If you aren’t convinced, run your retainer through Flesh to test its readability according to the Flesch–Kincaid readability test. If it requires above a grade 12 reading level, call it a failure, unless your clients are 100% college grads.

(You can use my retainer for inspiration, but please respect my work and my copyright.)

(Photo: http://flic.kr/p/6S4C96)

  • http://www.godfreadlaw.com Paul Godfread

    That is a pretty compact agreement. Most of mine had been about two pages, but after reading this I think I’m going to try to trim it back to one. I’m pretty sure that most of my clients don’t even read a two page agreement. All they really want to know is “what are you doing?” and “whats it going to cost?” The more additional text, the more some of those key points get buried.

  • http://www.abogadosmerino.com/ Manuel

    A really useful post. Mine is two full pages of small letters which I don’t remember what said. Time to re-work and improve it !!!.

  • http://lawofficesofcarolynelefant.com/ Carolyn Elefant

    This is a nice-looking, lean agreement – but it would not pass muster in DC. The DC ethics board recently changed its rule on flat fees, determining that all flat fees must go into a trust account and released either as work is performed (presumably some kind of hourly calculation which defeats the purpose of the flat fee) or as provided in the agreement (e.g., 30% is released at time complaint is filed, 50% at X stage and remainder when case is closed). I think a page is still doable though even with the extra baggage that the bar requires.

  • Auden L. Grumet, Esq.

    With all due respect, I completely disagree. Clients, like consumers in any context or transaction, have a duty to read [and presumably understand - or voice their confusion and to ask for clarity] a retainer agreement regardless of its length. My standard agreement is six pages (I should still have a sample posted on my website) in length and I believe it contains no superfluity. It speaks for itself, but there are countless things that I believe are prudent if not necessary to address in an adequate agreement – from a detailed explanation of the scope of the representation to matters of termination to dispute resolution, and so forth. And having such an encompassing agreement give me (and hopefully the client) peace of mind – as little is left to ambiguity. Why is “simple” now the new paradigm? I disagree with this relatively recent trend towards “simplicity”; we believe it is better because that is the current trend, but I was attracted to the practice of law because of its complexity. That does not mean I believe that more complex equals better, or that complexity is always necessary – to be sure, as consumer protection litigator, I am often frustrated by lengthy boilerplate contracts of adhesion – but a reasonable amount of detail is usually necessary or at least aids in avoiding later disputes, such as with my engagement agreement – and that is one of the first things my agreement states (that it is provided with a view towards minimizing, not increasing, the likelihood of a dispute).