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If you’ve gotten caught up in the legal system, the need for a good lawyer will quickly become obvious. Courts are complicated, scary, and confusing. It’s territory most of us have never traveled, and the potential risks if things go bad are huge—really huge. Without legal training, it’s almost impossible to feel comfortable navigating the legal system or secure that your rights are being adequately protected.

Whether a criminal charge has been brought against you or you are involved in a civil dispute (a dispute between two or more parties in an area like property law or contract law or family law), the key to feeling more secure is to find a good lawyer who understands your case and is invested in protecting your rights.

But lawyers are expensive. Private lawyers often bill by the hour with hourly rates rates that can easily surpass $100. Experienced attorneys and partners in big law firms charge even higher hourly rates. At rates like that, legal representation can seem out of reach for many of us.

If you need representation and don’t think you can afford a private attorney at going rates, here are five tips that can help you find the representation you need. Many of these tips require you to do some online research. If you do not have a computer or access to the internet, consider going to your public library or a local law library and asking for assistance there:

(1) Find a Pro Bono Lawyer

“Pro Bono” is a Latin term that means “for the public good.” In law, the term is used to describe representation by a lawyer for a reduced cost or for no cost at all so that people who need legal representation, or causes that deserve it, have access to justice.

Lawyers have an ethical professional responsibility to donate a certain number of hours a year to pro bono work (in other words, to helping people or causes that could not otherwise afford representation). The American Bar Association recommends that lawyers donate 50 hours a year to represent deserving individuals or organizations for free or for reduced rates. This is not a law (in all but a few states). Lawyers are not obligated to donate their time. But it is something that they are taught they should do because lawyers believe that everyone deserves to be treated fairly in our courts, even if they cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.

Lawyers take that ethical responsibility seriously. Even the biggest, most prestigious law firms set aside a certain number of hours a year for their associates to bill as pro bono (“for the public good”) hours.

Finding pro bono representation can take time, and you may not have a compelling case—or may not qualify financially—for free or reduced-fee representation. If you have the time to search, you can begin in one of two ways.

  1. First, you could start by finding a lawyer who has experience in the area of law that your case involves. You can google that information or you can visit your state’s Bar Association or State Bar website to find lists of attorneys who have experience in various areas of law. And remember that not all lawyers are the same. As you zero-in on possible attorneys, check out client satisfaction statements on services like Avvo. Ask around. If you find a lawyer you like who is too expensive for you, ask him or her to consider representing you for a reduced fee or for free as a pro bono client.
  2. A second approach is to see if your state bar association (a nonprofit professional organization for your state’s lawyers) or your state bar (the stage agency that licenses attorneys) has a lawyer referral service that offers initial consults for free or at reduced rates. In North Carolina, for example, a pool of attorneys has volunteered to consult about N.C. law for an initial fee of $50/hour. Many other states offer similar programs or have call-in hotlines that citizens can use to contact lawyers affordably for initial advice.

Lawyers, even the most cynical lawyers, care about justice. You are most likely to persuade a lawyer to represent you as a pro bono client (for free or for a reduced fee) if you or your case touches their heart because of a clear injustice or if it touches their mind because they are interested in the legal issues raised by your case. You might also get lucky and find a lawyer who wants to build his or her reputation and is willing to take on your case for free or at reduced rates to have the opportunity to do expand his or her reputation or areas of expertise.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate the fee

In addition to looking for an attorney who might represent you pro bono, don’t be afraid to negotiate your attorney’s fee. Before choosing your attorney, it is appropriate (and smart) to find out what he or she intends to charge and then compare that cost with other attorneys. While the lowest-cost attorney might not be your best choice, the highest-cost attorney might not be the right choice either.

Finally, if you have time to participate in your own representation, consider looking for an attorney who might negotiate his or her fee in exchange for your doing some of the non-legal legwork in your case. Legal cases are decided on a combination of law and facts. For example, the law is clear that I cannot drive through a stop sign without stopping. But there might be some dispute over whether I did or did not brake long enough to qualify as having stopped. By and large, lawyers make their living by the hour. If you can save them time, that will save you money. Volunteer to do whatever you are qualified to do that will be helpful (for example, talking to the police officer about your traffic violation might be prohibited and not helpful, so your lawyer might not want you to do that. But talking with neighbors to see if anyone remembers seeing you stop at the stop sign might be very helpful.)

(2) Search out a Legal Aid Clinic

Legal aid is a catch-all phrase that includes a variety of free or reduced-fee legal services, ranging from general public legal clinics where attorney’s fees are paid for by the government to clinics funded by grants or private donors. There are also private law firms that are devoted to providing services to low-income or moderate-income clients for significantly reduced rates.

Often, privately funded legal clinics, or clinics that are supported by grants, specialize in specific areas of practice, such as women’s rights or immigration law, and their sources of funding are people or institutions that share a deep interest in the justice issues the clinic addresses. These clinics may not be located geographically near you, but will sometimes give advice by phone or even travel to represent clients if a case is important enough.

Public legal aid clinics have restrictions on who qualifies for representation through their institution. For example, government-supported public legal aid clinics generally have an income cut-off for clients, requiring that clients make less than a certain annual income to qualify. Other clinics restrict their representation to specific areas of the law or to a specific class of person (for example, like children or members of specified ethnic groups).

The best way to find out if legal aid is an option available to you is, again, to do some homework. Start with a Google search or contact your state’s Bar Association or State Bar. Two search terms to use are “legal aid + the name of your state” and “pro bono resource center + the name of your state.” Also, if your state has one or more law schools, check out their websites to see what clinics are school-supported. Read our Tip #3 below for more information on how law schools might help you. Finally, see if your state has a Pro Bono Referral Center like this one that might point you toward possible legal aid clinics in your state.

A downside to legal aid is that legal aid clinics are often under-staffed and have an enormous demand for their services. As a result, they sometimes have long waitlists for their services or cannot take on new clients at all. In addition, most (not all) legal aid clinics provide services to low income individuals – not to moderate-income people.

(3) Consider Law Schools

There are over 200 law schools in the country, with a total enrollment of over 113,000 students in the United States. “Experiential learning” (learning by doing) is a form of education that is becoming increasingly more important to law schools with encouragement from the American Bar Association (ABA) to graduate “practice-ready lawyers.”

To be competent to practice law by the time they graduate, students need to get experience while they are in school.

To answer that need for their students to be “practice ready,” all law schools offer opportunities for their students to work with real clients. Some of those opportunities come through volunteer Pro Bono (“for the public good”) representation and others through experiential classes (often called “clinics”) that the students take for course credit.

In either setting (a volunteer pro bono experience or a for-credit class experience), students are closely supervised by law faculty members or licensed members of the practicing bar who monitor them all along the way. Students often work in teams or in pairs, learning from each other as well as from their professors.

As with Legal Aid Clinics (see Tip #3 above), law school clinics generally have specific areas of interest (the University of North Carolina School of Law, for example, has an Immigration Law Clinic and a Domestic Violence Clinic, among others). They also have guidelines regarding income limits for those they can represent.

To learn more about what representation law schools in your area might be able to offer you, search the school’s website and/or call the school.

A downside to seeking representation through law school is time, with students often working on a semester schedule and plans for representation being made well in advance of the start of a semester. On a more positive note, however, schools often have arrangements for last-minute cases and/or opportunities to talk with someone to get advice about your case.

(4) See If You Are Entitled to a Court-Appointed Attorney

We have all seen the scenes on TV and in the movies where an arresting police officer reads an arrestee his or her rights: “You have the right to remain silent . . . . You are entitled to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.“

Our rights to have representation in a criminal trial, whether or not we could afford to pay an attorney, stem from the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, when the United States Supreme Court decided in 1963 that it was unconstitutional (a violation of our constitutional rights) to subject a person to a criminal trial without representation because that person could not afford to pay for a lawyer.

Because we hear those rights read on TV and in the movies so often, it is easy to become confused and think we are entitled to representation in any kind of case and in all circumstances, but that is not true. If your case is a civil case (not about a criminal charge brought against you, but about things like property or wills or family law or business), you are not entitled to free representation. See the other tips in this article for ways you can save money but still find adequate representation in a civil case.

Even if you are charged with a crime, you are not necessarily entitled to have an attorney appointed for you. The key is that the court has to believe (based on concrete facts) that you cannot afford an attorney. Each state, and even each county, has different ways of determining whether your case is of the type that qualifies (for example, if the crime you are charged with might result in a jail term, your case qualifies) AND whether your financial situation (often your income) keeps you from being able to afford an attorney in the legal sense.

If you have been arrested and think you might qualify for a court-appointed lawyer, you will have a chance at your arraignment hearing (your initial opportunity to see a judge) to ask the judge to appoint a lawyer for you. The judge will take it from there.

(5) Consider Representing Yourself (but only if you do your homework)

Navigating the judicial system is a challenge. You wouldn’t work on your own car or build your own house without first doing a lot of homework, and representing yourself in court is the same thing. Note that many websites for state court systems (for example, here, Minnesota) have directions for what to do if you act as your own attorney. Here are some tips to consider if you decide to represent yourself:
(a) Remember that, in court, there are no “do-overs.” Do not represent yourself unless you are willing to live with the consequences. Except in the rarest of circumstances, you cannot go back later and say, “This was harder than I thought. I should have gotten an attorney. I’d like to start over.”

(b) Keep in mind that each state has its own court system and its own set of laws, and the federal government has its own courts and its own set of laws. What works in one state may not be relevant in another, so be sure to do your research for the court that is responsible for your case.

(c) If you decide to represent yourself, make friends with the Clerk of Court for the court that will hear your case. Clerks of Court do not have to have a law degree, and frequently they don’t, but they know a whole lot about the ins and outs—the details—involved in filing papers, meeting deadlines, contacting the right people, etc., that would be useful to you.

(d) Before going into court on the date of your own hearing, take time to watch other hearings and procedures in the court your case will be held in. When you represent yourself, a judge will treat you (with perhaps some kindness) as an attorney. You do not want to waste the court’s time nor hurt your own case by not understanding what commonly happens in your court. How long do hearings last? Who asks questions? Do the attorney sit or stand? Can you find out (perhaps from the Clerk of Court) who will hear your case and watch that judge in action?

(e) See if there is a law library near you that would allow you to do research there. While law librarians cannot practice law without a bar license, and even law librarians with a bar license would be careful not to give you legal advice, they can be extraordinarily helpful as you look for information that will help you understand your case.

(e) If you have a civil case, do some research (or talk to the Clerk of Court) to find out if your case qualifies to be heard in Small Claims Court (or your state’s equivalent of Small Claims Court). A court for small claims is exactly what it sounds like: it is a more casual, less intimidating setting where a magistrate (who is sometimes someone without a law degree) hears your case based on your testimony and then hears the other side and decides the case, then and there. “Small claims” are often bigger than you would think—in North Carolina, for example, you can bring a claim for a civil case involving damages up to $10,000 in some counties without having to go to a bigger court or risk a jury trial. It is very common for people to represent themselves in a civil action that qualifies for Small Claims Court –that’s what it’s designed for.

(f) Find out if your case qualifies for mediation (a negotiated settlement decided in a non-confrontational setting). Again, you can talk to the Clerk of Court about this option to see if there is a way you can get a civil dispute settled through discussions and sharing of information, rather than in a court of law involving adversaries (people in direct conflict). You can also sometimes persuade the party on the other side of a lawsuit to voluntarily consider settling the problem through mediation rather than through a court of law. Do some more homework and you may find free or reduced-fee mediation clinics in your area. Also, some courts will give parties the option of choosing mediation or may even require them to try mediation before launching into a full-blown, lengthy trial.

Bottom line

The bottom line is this: If you or someone you love is tangled up in a legal controversy or has been charged with a crime, it’s scary. Having the greatest chance of getting the outcome you want will take an investment of time and, probably, some money on your part. There generally aren’t quick and easy answers. But there are ways to control the costs and still find an attorney you trust to represent you. This article has set out five solid possibilities for you to explore:

  1. seek pro bono (for the public good) representation;
  2. see if you qualify for legal aid;
  3. consider law schools;
  4. ask for a court-appointed lawyer in a criminal case (if you qualify); and
  5. consider doing your homework and representing yourself under carefully controlled circumstances.

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