There are 1.3 million lawyers in the United States, but not all lawyers are the same. Attorneys become licensed to work in a specific state, focus on a particular area or areas of the law, and manage our firms differently.

When you begin speaking to attorneys, one topic you should always ask about is the cost. The lawyer you hire should be able to explain their fee structure clearly. One phrase you might hear is a “retainer.”

This guide will help you understand what a lawyer retainer is and what it means for you.


There are several ways a lawyer can charge for their services. This includes a flat fee, an hourly rate, a contingency arrangement, and a retainer. A retainer is a fee the lawyer requires you to pay before they begin representation.

Once you pay the fee, your lawyer will begin working on your case. As their office bills you, the billed amount gets subtracted from the retainer fee paid. Your lawyer may require you to deposit more money as the balance depletes so that you always have a positive balance. Once your case is completed, any remaining balance on your account gets refunded to you.


Typically, the more complicated a case is, the more likely a lawyer will require a retainer. There are also some areas of law where you’re more likely to pay a retainer than others. Corporate, estate planning, real estate, and intellectual property lawyers all commonly request a retainer for services. But then other lawyers, such as personal injury lawyers, tend to work on contingency. This means they get paid fees only when you recover damages.


Yes, this is what many businesses are advised to do. You never know when you may need a lawyer, or if you may need to use one frequently. Having a lawyer on retainer means that they are primed and ready to go at the request of an email or phone call. This can allow you to act and respond quickly to legal matters and can help avoid more significant negative consequences later on.


Lawyers are required to keep a separate escrow account called a trust account for all advance fees collected. The lawyer will withdraw money from the trust account once the lawyer works on your case and bills the account.


Lawyers appreciate a retainer agreement because they can confidently work on a case knowing they will get paid. This type of arrangement works well for clients because it lets them determine an anticipatory budget for their case.


If you need to hire an attorney and they begin talking about a lawyer retainer, don’t panic. This is a standard method of billing, especially in California. Use this time to discuss the complexity of your case and the anticipated amount of work.

When you are ready to hire a lawyer, contact them and prepare to pay a retainer. You can then relax, knowing you have a legal expert looking out for your best interests.

Contact our office today and schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

Michael J. Fish is “Of Counsel” with the firm of Anderson Zeigler. He is a past chair of The State Bar of California Mandatory Fee Arbitration Committee and the Marin County Bar Association Client Relations Committee and the current Chair of the SCBA Mandatory Fee Arbitration Committee.

Employee Spotlight: Michael Shklovsky

Michael joined Anderson Zeigler in September 2016 as an associate attorney. He was such a great fit in skill, practice area, and personality that, in just over a year, he was promoted to be the newest Director of the firm. Our firm spotlight this quarter focuses on Michael’s unusual and inspiring journey to Anderson Zeigler:

Michael was born in Moscow in what was then the Soviet Union. His mother taught kindergarten and his father worked in automotive repair. As a child, Michael spent his summers in a small Lithuanian fishing town between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon. Michael’s days were filled with eating wild berries, fishing with his dad, and picking up amber along the seashore after the storms.

When he was 10 years old, Michael and his family immigrated to Israel and put down roots in a suburb of Tel Aviv. From an early age, Michael knew the importance of hard work. At eleven, he started working at a vegetable stand and then moved on to selling flowers door-to-door. By the age of 13, he had a second job working at a pizza shop. By the time he was fourteen, he had saved enough money for a solo trip to California.

In 1996, after winning the Green Card Lottery, Michael’s family immigrated to the United States and landed in Concord, California. While he completed his senior year of high school, Michael continued to work and expanded his skills to include landscaping and carpentry jobs. After graduation, he enrolled as a full-time student at the Diablo Valley Community College, and two years later, he transferred to U.C. Berkeley as a computer science major.

While at U.C. Berkeley, Michael continued to work his landscape and construction jobs, one of which was for renowned trial attorney, Ron Sturtz. Mr. Sturtz became a mentor to Michael and suggested that Michael consider becoming a lawyer. He offered Michael an interview at a well-respected law firm in Oakland where Michael landed a position as a legal assistant in a busy litigation department. Michael loved the work and refocused his studies at U.C. Berkeley towards a degree in Rhetoric with an emphasis on legal discourse.

In his three years as a legal assistant, Michael learned how to prepare cases for trial and earned an appreciation for the exciting rhythm of a busy litigation practice. With this solid foundation, Michael left the firm and enrolled at the Golden Gate School of Law as a Merit Scholarship recipient. He was immediately drawn to litigation and mock trial competitions where he was mentored by the legendary Bernie Segal. Michael earned his J.D. in 2007 and soon after joined a small but thriving business litigation firm in Marin County.

Over the years that followed, Michael honed his skills as a commercial litigator and trial attorney, assumed leadership roles at the Alameda County Bar Association, contributed his time to pro bono representation, taught numerous MCLE classes, and was recognized for his accomplishments by the Super Lawyers Magazine and others. Even though he has only been in Sonoma County for a short time, he has already had a significant impact through his involvement in the Sonoma County Bar Association and as a member of Leadership Santa Rosa Class ___. I am a member of LSR Class 34.

When he is not vigorously advocating for his clients, Michael can be found camping with his wife, building elaborate play structures for their two cats, tending to his collection of plants and bonsai trees, photographing wildlife from the deck of his kayak, and exploring the natural beauty of Sonoma County and faraway lands.