A: A retainer is a written agreement. Its purpose is to protect you, the client and also the attorney. It sets forth a basic understanding of the fees the attorney will charge for the services and work he expects to perform. In a negligence, accident, medical malpractice or wrongful death case a retainer is always required to begin an investigation to determine whether you have a valid case.
In those cases, the fee is based on a contingency fee arrangement, which simply means that the attorney takes on the risk of investigating your case at his own expense.
If there is a valid basis for case, the attorney will go ahead and lay out all of the expenses on their own, at no risk to you. The attorney will work for the duration of your litigation without getting paid. The goal and expectation is that if and when you are successful in obtaining compensation for your injuries, the attorney will then receive a percentage of what he has recovered for you.
This eliminates the need to pay the lawyer on an hourly basis, something that is prohibitive for most people.
A lawyer in New York cannot ethically begin to investigate your matter or proceed forward with a lawsuit unless and until the client has signed a retainer agreement.