Flat-Fee vs. Retainer Lawyer: Which One Fits Your Needs?

Often, the number-one concern of those facing divorce is the cost. Attorneys generally charge for their services in one of two ways, and it is important to understand the difference.

By Alex White
Updated: October 21, 2016

Lawyer Fee Type #1: Hourly and Retainer

flat-fee vs. retainer lawyer

An hourly/retainer lawyer will typically ask for a retainer, which is a sum of money that the lawyer will use as he/she works through the case. A typical retainer could be from $2,500 to $25,000 (or more) depending on the complexity of your case. The retainer is based on the hourly rate. Make sure to ask the attorney what his/her hourly rate is. Hourly attorney fees range from $300 to $900 per hour depending on the attorneys experience and credentials. 

After you have done your research and you wish to become a client to your chosen attorney, be sure that you carefully read the attorney retainer agreement. It should state very clearly the hourly rate as well as the expected retainer that is needed. As with any retainer, once the attorney uses that money, he/she may request another retainer. The retainer amount is usually not the final amount that the completed divorce will cost.

Lawyer Fee Type #2: Flat Fees

An attorney who offers flat fees may offer a flat fee for the divorce in total or offer a "pay-as-you-go" system. If the divorce is uncontested, the outcome will be much easier to predict. In this case, the attorney may offer a flat fee for the entire divorce. The attorney agreement will outline what he/she will do for the flat fee.

If the divorce involves a "default", meaning that the petitioner is sure that the respondent will not respond, a flat fee can also be suggested. In the case of a "default" divorce with issues such as children or property, the petitioner will go to a "default" hearing and the judge will make a ruling based on the petitioner’s testimony. In the case of an uncontested divorce or a default divorce with or without issues, the attorney can offer a flat fee and that will usually be the only fee needed to complete the divorce. Filing fees or other court fees are additional. Not all attorneys will work on a "flat-fee basis," so you shouldn't discount an attorney who doesn't.

However, if the case is less predictable, the attorney may offer flat fees as the case proceeds. When flat fees are offered, the client can be assured that hourly rates would not be charged—only flat fees. In addition, most attorneys will offer a payment plan for a flat-fee divorce.

There are some occasions where a flat-fee model may change to an hourly/retainer model. This may occur when the divorce becomes contested and the client wants full representation.

First-Time Experience

For many people, divorce is a "first-time" experience. As a result, most people don’t know what to expect. Fear, anxiety, and depression may be just some of the emotions that come up. First, it’s important to realize that there is a law for virtually every circumstance, so an experienced divorce lawyer would be your best choice, as they will be able to explain your issues and provide you with a reasonable set of expectations. Second, it’s always best to meet with several attorneys before you make your final decision. By doing this, you will understand your legal rights as well as your specific issues, which will help determine which attorney is best for you and help you determine whether a flat-fee or an hourly/retainer attorney is appropriate for your case.

Do Your Research

It’s also a good idea to research divorce and divorce attorney fees online. There is substantial information regarding divorce on legal sites as well as blogs and social media. Further, reviews of various attorneys can be checked on Google, Yahoo, and Yelp. Remember, knowledge is power, so take this initial time to learn as much as you can. When you feel that you understand the court process and your issues and have compared various lawyer fees, you should be ready to choose the appropriate divorce attorney for you.


Alex White is a lawyer by profession and a free-time legal writer. He covers topics related to divorce, family law, civil litigation, and other legal sections. Back To Top

July 15, 2016
Categories:  Family Lawyers

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