My friend needs to get a separation agreement and divorce. The law firm she called asked for a retainer of several thousands of dollars up front before doing any work. Is a large retainer normal for this kind of legal work?? Why? She lives in Ontario, Canada.
(In my answer, I say "you". I realise you are asking for a friend.)
You say that the lawyer asked for several thousand dollars up-front as a retainer. This is fairly normal.
Lawyers generally charge either a flat fee, a percentage, or an hourly rate plus expenses. Percentages are unusual in a divorce and are banned in many jurisdictions. Flat-fee divorces are also unusual except for very simple cases where there's no dispute.
So, most divorces will be billed at an hourly rate. Divorces can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how acrimonious they are. As they are also highly emotional times, most lawyers will ask for a retainer up-front. In fact, retainers are typical for most legal matters.
This is not the same as a flat fee! If you pay a $5,000 retainer and your lawyer bills out at $150/hour, this retainer will cover only the first 33 hours or so. After that, you may be asked to place additional funds in your trust account, or the lawyer may simply bill. On the other hand, if the divorce is resolved with less than 33 hours of legal time, your lawyer will return the excess money from the trust account.
I am not sure what lawyers in Ontario typically ask for a retainer. $10,000 to $20,000 is not unusual for a divorce. I have personally witnessed a divorce (not mine, thankfully) with legal bills well over $100,000, that dragged out over approximately ten years.
As always, it pays to shop around. Make sure you ask about the hourly rate, the retainer, and any payment plans offered. Also, be very clear with the lawyer to determine what your expectations are. Do you expect this will be settled in three months, with basically no dispute on terms? Do you expect to fight tooth-and-nail for every penny? Divorces are a trying and emotional time; they do not always have to be an expensive time, but often are.