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What Does Your Retainer Agreement Say About You?

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I am still working my way through my review copy of Stephanie Kimbro’s new book, reviewed here by Richard Granat. There’s just too much information to breeze through and unlike many bloggers (not Richard, but others), I actually make a point of reading the books that I review.

Still, one of the most useful parts of the book that I’ve noticed so far is the appendix, which includes a few draft unbundling agreements. Though there are one or two that I’ll comment on more in my full review, I was particularly impressed by the sample for Rania Combs’ virtual law practice . While Rania’s agreement isn’t short, it’s devoid of legalese, tightly structured. Most importantly, fairly protects both her clients and her own interest in an emerging area of practice – online delivery of unbundled legal services – that is potentially fraught with ethics and malpractice consequences for lawyers while educating clients about issues that should concern them when retaining an attorney online (such as UPL and security).

In many ways, Rania’s retainer agreement is a form of marketing. As I read the agreement, I thought, “Wow, someone who puts that much thought into a retainer agreement must do the same in the work for clients.” Moreover, Rania’s retainer treats delivery of legal services online as a serious undertaking, not just an offhand side tool to generate more revenue – which makes her services more appealing than both non-lawyer form fillers or fly-by-night practitioners.

Of course, retainer agreements necessarily vary depending upon one’s practice area. Some retainer agreements lend themselves to a short and stylistic format. In other practices, where speed is important, Enricho Schaefer’s email agreement or Andrew Flusche’s sign online feature makes sense.

Retainer agreements are also an evolutionary process, evolving and changing with each experience. I imagine over the next few years, Rania’s agreement may change as well as the concept of unbundled legal services becomes more routine, or as issues arise that perhaps she didn’t anticipate.

What does your retainer agreement show about you and your practice?

  • The retainer agreement is usually the very first document a client is asked to sign. It’s a direct reflection of you and how you view your client’s case and relationship. Our personal injury and wrongful death retainer (what we do) is 8 pages long. It’s very detailed. It’s complete. There are no mistakes. As we walk the client’s through the agreement, we explain the details. We also tell them that we will protect their interest as thoroughly as we’ve documented our professional relationship with the new client. They like it! Many PI lawyers try to use a short 1 page form. Not only does this form not comply with State Bar rules, it also can give the client a bad first impression as to what kind of lawyer you are. Great article about an important and ever changing topic. MJ

  • I actually have two retainer agreements, one for the standard family litigated matters and one for the unbundled services; the latter one includes the required state form, which makes it much longer. My particular problem is that I have a lot of Spanish-speakers who don’t read English so explaining it takes longer and I have to include the disclaimer in Spanish about my having translated it.  I’ve thought about having yet another set of retainers in Spanish but that would require it to be quite lengthy and I’m not sure still that client actually take the time to read it even after I go over it.

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