Hiring a lawyer can be expensive. Many lawyers will require you to pay a lump sum up front; this is known as a retainer. It can certainly seem uncomfortable to turn over a large amount of money before any legal services have actually been provided. However, it is reassuring to note that there are several rules in place to protect you and your money.
Rules Lawyers Must Follow
Rules governing the conduct of lawyers vary from state to state. However, all states have very stringent rules regarding the handling of your money. Any lump sums paid to your attorney must be placed in a trust account. Your lawyer is not allowed to withdraw any money until that portion of the money is actually earned. These rules are taken very seriously, and many states randomly audit their attorneys to make sure that proper systems are in place. Offending lawyers can be sanctioned, suspended, or even disbarred.
Fee Arbitration Program
In the unlikely event that you have a fee dispute with your lawyer, most state bar associations maintain a "fee arbitration" program. Fee arbitration allows an independent party to determine whether your lawyer engaged in any unethical conduct. The arbiter can also determine a fair and reasonable fee for the service provided.
Client Protection Funds
Finally, every state bar association keeps what is known as "client protection funds." These funds are kept by state bars to reimburse people whose lawyers have been ordered to refund their clients, but for various reasons are not able to do so. While the need for such reimbursement is thankfully rare, it provides a safety net for those people who end up with truly "bad apples."