Alternatives to Pro Bono
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Steven J. Ellison, Esq. | Last reviewed August 19, 2022
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If you have a legal problem but don't think you can afford a lawyer, you're not alone. According to one report, as many as 86% of low-income Americans received no or inadequate legal help with civil matters.
If you can't find someone to represent you for free or on a reduced fee basis, don't panic. You can still get access to justice. Consider handling your legal problem on your own. There are a lot of resources available to you.
What Is a Pro Bono Attorney?
FindLaw discusses what pro bono attorneys do and how to find one in other articles, and you can learn more about it there. But basically “pro bono" comes from the Latin phrase, “pro bono publico," which means “for the public good."
Pro bono attorneys are lawyers who represent people — typically, low-income people — for a substantially reduced fee or, more commonly, for free. The cases they are willing to take are often public-interest cases (e.g., civil rights, child custody, domestic violence, foreclosure, housing, etc.).
Make Sure You've First Exhausted Your Options
Before you try to tackle your legal problem alone, make sure you have exhausted your ability to find pro bono representation. The American Bar Association, the most prominent professional organization for lawyers, strongly recommends that all lawyers do at least 50 hours of pro bono work for low-income people for free per year. Many state supreme courts have adopted this recommendation.
You may be able to find a lawyer if you know where to look. We give you a detailed list of possible places in other articles. As you will see, one of your options is to find a free legal aid clinic.
The Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded nonprofit corporation, is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the country. Legal aid organizations can apply for grants from the LSC, which they use to provide free legal help to clients who qualify financially. One example of such an organization is the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York, which, as its name suggests, provides free legal help to people in New York.
Other Places to Look for a Pro Bono Provider
Legal aid clinics are not your only option. You can try to get free legal representation from a number of different organizations directly:
- Bar associations: the ABA, state bar associations, and local bar associations have pro bono programs that provide lawyer referral services or pro bono opportunities for lawyers
- Law school clinics: most law schools have legal clinics for certain practice areas, in which clients are represented by a team of students who work under the supervision of licensed volunteer lawyers (e.g., civil rights, misdemeanors, housing, foreclosures, immigration, child welfare, family law, etc.)
- Service organizations: organizations that provide services other than legal services to low-income people have relationships with lawyers and may be able to connect you with a pro bono attorney
- Law firms: many law firms, particularly large law firms, have pro bono committees that help connect their lawyers and paralegals with pro bono opportunities and provide pro bono services
If You Can't Find a Pro Bono Lawyer, You May Be Able to Do it Yourself
Despite your best efforts, you may be unable to find a pro bono attorney. It may be scary, but many people with a little help and information are able to manage at least certain legal issues on their own.
FindLaw's Learn About the Law provides a wealth of free legal information for many legal practice areas in an easily searchable format. You only need to plug in the legal topic you are interested in and you will retrieve many resources that may help meet your needs and answer your questions.
FindLaw also provides some do-it-yourself options. If you need a will, health care directive, or a power of attorney, FindLaw has partnered with experienced estate planning attorneys to create forms you can fill out online. FindLaw has also partnered with experienced business attorneys to develop certain business forms.
If you have specific legal questions, you may be able to get at least some insight through a legal clinic. Legal clinics differ from legal aid clinics. Instead of having legal aid offices staffed by hired lawyers, legal clinics are usually held in courthouses or law libraries and are staffed by lawyers who volunteer for a set number of hours. You can show up during operating hours, have consultations, ask questions, and get answers and guidance. You can get further information from your local courthouse or law library.
Although it may go by different names depending on where you are, you may also get answers from a self-help center. A self-help center is a place staffed by court employees where you can get information and services about legal problems. They can provide you with forms and other resources that can help meet your legal needs.
One important note about self-help centers. The staff may be able to provide you with legal assistance, but as court employees they cannot provide you with legal advice. You cannot sue them for malpractice if they tell you something that turns out to be wrong.
Small Claims Court
If you're in a dispute with someone, you may be able to sue them yourself in small claims court. Small claims courts handle civil cases that involve an amount less than a limit set by state law. That limit depends on where you are, but it can be as low as $2,500 and as much as $25,000.
The small claims court process is pretty straightforward:
- Prepare and file your written complaint with the court and pay the filing fee
- Arrange that your complaint be “served" on the other side (that means delivered in a way that complies with state law)
- The other side prepares and files a written answer to your complaint within a certain amount of time provided for by state law (or risk losing by default)
- Gather evidence that you need to prove your claim (doing legal research online can help you figure out what evidence you might need)
- Present your evidence to the court at the hearing (you can generally find out the procedures your small claims court follows on the court's website)
- The other side presents their evidence
- The court issues a decision (sometimes right there, sometimes in writing later)
These steps may vary a little, depending on where you are.
If You Can't Find A Free Lawyer, Don't Panic
Sometimes it is simply not possible to find a lawyer who will help you with your legal needs on a pro bono basis. This can cause a lot of anxiety, but you shouldn't think your chances are hopeless. Many legal matters can be managed on your own. You have a world of resources available to you to educate yourself if you know where to look.
Understand Free Legal Help
Learn about pro bono, find legal help, and know what to expect in your case.