Limited-Scope Retainers: When you can’t afford to buy the whole thing.

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Limited-Scope Retainers: When you can’t afford to buy the whole thing.

Lawyers cost money.  Clients and lawyers know this.  Lawyers sell their time, legal advice and skills based on their professional knowledge. This is the value lawyers bring to their clients.  Many legal matters are complicated and challenge clients to learn and understand more about their situation and they take time.

Family law matters can be especially difficult.  Family lawyers are often required to deal with complex issues – sometimes they are legally complex, sometimes it is the complicated family relationships and emotions that make them complex and often it is both.  Despite the complexity of their matters, most family law clients are ordinary people.  They don’t have millions of dollars in assets or large companies generating income.  When parents separate, they are already in a situation where the family finances are stretched to support two households instead of one.  For many families, adding the costs of paying for not one, but two, lawyers is a challenge.

One of the choices clients like this have is to engage a lawyer who is prepared to assist the client with only part of their matter.  Lawyers call this type of arrangement a limited scope retainer.  Some lawyers will enter into this type of fee and retainer agreement with a client.

In a limited scope retainer, the lawyer and client sign a written agreement setting out what specific services the lawyer will provide to the client.  Sometimes clients want help from the lawyer to prepare the required Court documents and the client chooses to attend Court themselves.  Other clients choose to prepare the Court documents and want help from a lawyer to speak and present their arguments in Court.   Still other clients may want a lawyer to review their court documents and give them some pointers about how to most effectively present their case and arguments in Court.

The best way to determine what services a lawyer will or will not provide is to have an open conversation with your lawyer about what steps need to be completed and who will be responsible for each step – the lawyer or the client.  Sometimes clients can agree they will pay for a specific amount of a lawyer’s time and when that money is used up, the client is on their own unless they wish to purchase some more of the lawyer’s time and legal advice. This type of limited scope retainer agreement can give both the client and the lawyer more certainty about fees.   Some lawyers may also agree to provide a certain legal service for a set price.  After the lawyer and client sort who will do what, or how much time and advice the lawyer will provide for a fee, the lawyer must put the agreement into a written contract both the lawyer and client must sign.

Lawyers can advise the client about what steps must be taken to do what the client wants done. Then the client can make an educated decision about which steps they choose to do themselves and which steps they want the lawyer to help them with.

Limited scope retainers can provide assistance for the client when the client can’t afford to pay a lawyer to help them with their whole case.  We see limited scope retainers when there is more unemployment or economic uncertainty.  If you have legal needs and can’t afford to pay a lawyer to handle your whole problem, consider the possibility of talking to a lawyer about a limited scope retainer.


Catherine Regier
Catherine Regier helps you navigate the turning points of life. She is a partner with Pritchard & Co. Law Firm, LLP. Contact Catherine at (403) 527-4411 or at