Expert Retainer Agreements: Establishing Channels of Communication

For experts and attorneys, expert retainer agreements are an important component of the legal working relationship. The retainer is an up-front, lump sum paid by the hiring attorney for the projects they want an expert to complete.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

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— Updated on August 31, 2022

Expert Retainer Agreements: Establishing Channels of Communication

For experts, a retainer agreement is a seamless payment option—you’re paid right away without the need for invoicing. The attorney also benefits by avoiding the tedious task of ongoing bill reviews and payment approval processes.

The foundation of an expert retainer arrangement, of course, is an agreement on the amount of the retainer. Reaching this consensus isn’t rocket science but does require clear communication and expectation management.

Hourly Expectations for Expert Retainer

The first step towards locking in an expert retainer agreement is aligning on your hourly rate. Then, you’ll estimate how many hours it will take to complete the initial project(s) while meeting the deadline. For example, an attorney may ask you to review case records and develop a chronology of events in three weeks. You’d look over the records and provide an estimated number of hours to complete the project by the due date. The attorney then pays you a lump sum for the project using your estimates and the hourly rate.

Once an expert retainer agreement is in place, it’s time to invest in establishing communication channels. A great attorney-expert relationship rests on great communication— especially once the retainer is paid and an attorney is counting on you for crucial deliverables. Of course, things can come up that impact your project estimates or the attorney’s needs. But with open, regular communications, making any adjustments during the course of a working relationship will go much smoother.

Basic Set-Up

The most basic groundwork for communications is exchanging preferred contact information. Share the email, work phone, cell phone, and mailing address you want the attorney to use for communications. Request the same information from them.

Next, agree with your hiring attorney on the primary communication platform you will use. This way, both parties know where to look for messages. Also, be sure to clarify whether conference calls will be by phone or a video platform such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. You’ll also want to inquire how you can check in for quick questions—instant messaging or secure texting apps are popular options.

Expert Retainer Communication Cadence

It’s important to stay connected with your hiring attorney as you work on your projects. This is best achieved by agreeing on a regular cadence of communications. Perhaps this will be a weekly or monthly check-in. Also, be sure to get clarity on whether the check-ins will be via email, video conference, or some other channel.

The communication cadence will also depend on the timeline and milestones for the case. Work with your hiring attorney to get a good understanding of the key case milestones and how your deliverables fit into the overall case timeline. For example, your chronology of events could impact your hiring attorney’s case strategy, making your on-time report even more critical.

It’s always a good idea to ask when discovery ends so you have notice for when you might be asked to sit for a deposition. Also, take note that if a trial date has been set, your communication cadence will likely accelerate to include testimony practice sessions and further preparation. Understanding these case timelines will help you establish a workable communications cadence and manage expectations.

First Check-in

Don’t overlook the first check-in. It’s best to kick off your relationship with an early first meeting even if it is outside the agreed-upon communication cadence. This first check-in is especially useful soon after you start delving into the project. Keep a list of questions and clear them up on the first call or meeting. This will help you be efficient and build the attorney’s confidence that you are on the right track to deliver.

Follow-Up Call Scheduling

Though it may seem like an obvious task, be sure to get clarity on who will be responsible for scheduling follow-up calls. If each of you thinks the other will be reaching out to schedule the next meeting, this can lead to delays that can impact your work or roadblocks in the case prep. Try making it a habit to ask if the attorney would like you to schedule the follow-up call to ensure things keep progressing as they should.

Sharing Case Files

Expert casework will always rely heavily on documents—files, records, audio clips, reports, etc.  It’s mission-critical to understand how the exchange of these documents will occur. This will also likely be the same method you’ll use to deliver your work product to your hiring attorney.

Be sure to ask the attorney if they want to use email (make sure it is encrypted), secure file transfers, a specific portal, or another platform for document sharing.

Communications with Expert Retainer Agreements

If you follow these basic communication best practices you will be well-positioned to deliver on your commitments under a retainer agreement. Good communications also come in handy when you need to true-up payments. Staying connected with your hiring attorney on the big picture milestones of their case will help you successfully support them and their case.

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