I Can't Afford a Lawyer. Can I Do It Myself or Get Free Legal Help?

If you have a legal issue and low income, one of your biggest worries is probably whether you can afford a lawyer. Most highly trained professionals don't give away their services for free, and attorneys are no different. The good news is that tackling a legal issue can be less expensive than ever before. For example, some attorneys now offer "unbundled" legal services, meaning they'll help you with one or a few of the issues facing you for less cost than obtaining full representation, and you handle the rest of the matter yourself.

If your financial situation just doesn't allow for hiring an attorney in any capacity, however, you are left with only a few options: Do-it-yourself (DIY), or finding pro bono legal representation. This article explains the pros and cons of both options.

Is Handling Your Own Legal Issue Ever a Good Idea?

You do not need to hire a lawyer to enter into contracts, represent yourself in court, and perform other legal actions. But going it alone can be risky. A do-it-yourself approach to a legal issue is best if you have a relatively straightforward legal task you want to accomplish that doesn't have a lot of deadlines, steps to complete, or another party that's opposing you. If you are in a legal fight DIY is difficult and should be avoided if possible. Also, keep in mind that you cannot represent anyone else in court, even a family member, or it is considered practicing law without a license.

Circumstances when DIY might be a good option include:

  • Following forms and templates: If you can find a trustworthy service, a fill-in-the-blank form will often provide an easy way to create certain legal documents without the help and expense of a lawyer. FindLaw has forms for creating a last will and testament and other estate planning documents, as one example.
  • Resolving the issue without taking legal action: In some cases, like a contract dispute, it may be possible to resolve the conflict without legal action at all. For example, you may be able to reach an arrangement with your landlord if you both know the alternative is going to court. Sometimes it pays to exhaust all other options before getting a lawyer involved. FindLaw has a significant amount of free legal information that may help you with this.
  • Small claims court: If you are in a dispute that doesn't involve a lot of money, states have small claims courts where you can represent yourself. Each state has limits on the amount that can be handled in small claims court, so you will need to do some research to know if this is an option for you.
  • A self-help legal service or center can guide you. Many communities offer help for everyday legal issues. There may be some resources at your courthouse. Your local library may offer self-help services for common family law issues. Sometimes libraries will even host day-long clinics where you can ask questions to a lawyer directly (although the lawyer will not be representing you). If you take this route, be prepared to spend some time researching and learning about the law.

Is Hiring a Lawyer Worth It?

If you are reluctant to hire a lawyer because of the cost and think DIY might be a better option, this section is for you.

While lawyers sometimes get labeled as too expensive, in many cases hiring a lawyer is beneficial financially. If you go through a divorce without any legal help, for example, you may end up with a child support arrangement or property division that costs you more in the long run than if you had a lawyer on your side to begin with. It's the same with bankruptcy, employment disputes, and other common legal matters. Getting a lawyer is worth the cost.

Being a lawyer involves more than just knowing the law. It's also about applying specific facts to the law, knowing the court system, knowing what reasonable outcomes can be expected, how to negotiate, and other skills and knowledge. Hiring a lawyer is almost always the right choice if you can afford it. You can always make it clear to your lawyer that keeping costs down is a priority.

Sometimes people simply don't have any money and hiring a lawyer is not an option. At that point, looking into pro bono representation may be worthwhile.

How Do I Get Free Legal Representation?

As a service to their communities, most lawyers occasionally take cases for the public good without charging legal fees. When lawyers do this it is called pro bono representation. Pro bono attorneys give people in unfortunate circumstances the chance to participate in the legal system when they need it most.

While pro bono publico means "for the public good" in Latin, that does not mean you have to be out to save the world to get a pro bono attorney. Typically, pro bono cases involve everyday legal issues such as domestic violence, immigration, and housing. Generally, people are able to get a pro bono attorney in one of three ways:

  • You have income and assets under a certain amount. Legal Aid organizations operate in all 50 states and provide legal representation on a variety of issues. You can contact these organizations individually to ask about their income-based eligibility requirements and the types of cases they handle.
  • There is a pro bono legal clinic at a place and time near you. Law firms and attorneys may volunteer to participate at legal clinics. These clinics don't typically offer full representation for people who use them, but it is a place where you can ask questions, get help filling out court forms, and discuss your situation and next steps you need to take.
  • The case you have is of particular interest to the attorney, law firm, or legal organization you are working with. If you don't qualify for pro bono based on income, you may still be able to get a pro bono attorney if your case involves a unique matter of law or a civil right. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represents clients at no cost for cases involving free speech, religious liberty, and other First Amendment rights. The NAACP offers pro bono legal help for clients in cases involving racial justice and civil rights. Other law firms and organizations have different causes. For example, there are pro bono legal organizations that focus solely on helping immigrants.

Find the Right Mix for You

While pro bono and DIY mean very different things in the context of legal help, you can use both. Say you are trying to reach an agreement on parenting time and child support with your ex-spouse but you cannot afford a lawyer and do not qualify for legal aid. You may still be able to visit a legal research center at your library, an online legal help center (like FindLaw.com), and get forms and child support calculators from your local courthouse. If there is a legal aid clinic upcoming, it might be beneficial to go and ask questions you have not been able to answer doing your own research.

While it is best to have your own lawyer, that's unfortunately not possible for every situation. If that's the case for you, use any of the above strategies to get what help you can. Schedule some time to learn about your legal issue and what pro bono and self-help resources there are in your area. It requires a bit of extra work on your part, but free and low-cost legal help is often available.

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