When you pay your lawyer a retainer up front, it’s still your money until the lawyer earns it, which means that they do actual work on your case. You are basically giving them a pot of money from which they can take out their fee, piece by piece, as they earn it. It gives them a guarantee that they will be paid for the work that they do. But until they earn it, that money still belongs to the client, which is why lawyers are required to keep unearned fees in a completely separate account called a client trust account.
So what happens when your lawyer is done being your lawyer? If any money is left from your retainer, you should get it back. It’s yours. However, there are obstacles that sometimes stand in the way, making the process harder than it sounds. Sometimes, there are disputes between the client and the lawyer about what is owed. Sometimes the lawyer has mishandled the funds or even stolen the money. At issue recently is what happens when a lawyer dies or becomes disabled.
The Illinois Supreme Court established something decades ago called the client protection program. It’s meant to reimburse clients who lose money because of a shady lawyer. This program has now been expanded to include reimbursement for unearned fees if the client can’t get them back due to death or disability of their lawyer. These cases usually don’t involve dishonest conduct, but these clients are left with few options. You could make a claim against the lawyer’s estate to get your money back, but the estate might not have any money left. Now, you can file a claim to get reimbursed with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.
Last year, the ARDC paid over a million dollars in claims by clients who were victimized by attorneys who were found guilty of misconduct, which is still the main purpose of the program. Where does the money come from? Illinois lawyers. Most every Illinois attorney has to pay a few hundred dollars every year to keep their registration current, and the program gets around $25 of that. The Court and the ARDC do this as a public service, but it’s also in their best interest to do it. They don’t want people to lose confidence in the legal profession. Seems like a win-win.
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