With the caveat that there are exceptions to this, generally speaking in life, if you want to have an enforceable agreement with someone, you get it in writing and you both sign off on it. So if someone says they’ll sell you their car for $5,000 and you say sure, it’s not really an agreement. If push came to shove and they wanted to back out, they could, as could you.

A written contract shows a meeting of the minds. A well-written contract makes clear the rights and responsibilities of each party. It’s why so many housing contracts are really long.

When hiring an attorney, you can’t know for sure you’ve hired them or what they are getting paid without a written contract. In law terms, this is called a retainer agreement. No smart attorney would take on a client without one because it protects them and you. It will lay out what they are going to do for you and what they aren’t going to do for you. Most importantly it will make clear what their fees are. If it’s a contingency case it will tell you what percentage they will receive. If it’s an hourly fee, it should make clear what they can bill for, what it will cost if staff is doing the work, how often you will pay them, etc. It should also outline how expenses will be covered and reimbursed. For example, in Illinois medical malpractice lawsuits, costs can be in the six figures. You need to know upfront if you’ll be asked to pay for it if the case doesn’t succeed.

When agreements with a lawyer are only verbal, it leaves open to interpretation what the charges will be or what you are getting from them. In fact, it leaves open to whether they are even your lawyer at all. If an attorney won’t give you a fee agreement, it really would make me question if they know what they are doing or if they are the right fit for you.

These agreements, unlike housing contracts, don’t have to be long. Most are 1-3 pages and essentially the same no matter who the client is with just names and dates changed. In areas of law like workers’ compensation, the State of Illinois has actually created the agreements that every attorney must use.

One strange thing is that most lawyers aren’t taught how to create retainer agreements in law school. So if you are working with a young lawyer (or really anyone) you’d be wise to make sure it discusses fees or anything important to you.

Bonus tip. I know of one law firm in Chicago that implies in their retainer agreements that they can’t be fired. That is simply illegal and not enforceable. A retainer agreement is a contract, but I’ve never seen one that legally requires you to stick with your attorney if you think they are doing a bad job. And in the same way, a lawyer can also fire a client if they choose. Retainer agreements are contracts, but they only detail what will happen when each party wants to work together. It doesn’t bind you together forever.

Second bonus tip. Many lawyers say that if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen. Having a retainer agreement should give you peace of mind and you should insist on one.