How To Get Free Legal Representation
If you have a legal issue and cannot afford a lawyer, trying to find free legal assistance may be worth your time.
There are numerous legal aid organizations that provide free legal services. They exist in every state in the U.S. But while there is almost certainly a legal aid or pro bono organization near you, that does not mean that you are guaranteed to get help. You must meet their eligibility requirements and have an appropriate case for them to take on.
This article provides some tips on finding free legal representation.
Step 1: Find the Right Organization
Fortunately, it isn't hard to find pro bono resources near you. FindLaw has compiled several resources and links you can use to help you in your search.
The very first step is to understand what kind of attorney you need. For example, not many pro bono organizations take on criminal matters, although you do have the right to a public defender if you are charged with a crime. This means you need to figure out which organization is best suited to help you. The following questions can help you decide where to look first:
- What kind of attorney do I need? Pro bono attorneys work on cases that help people who are disadvantaged in some way get access to justice. This covers a lot of areas of law, including family law, landlord/tenant law, and IRS/tax disputes, but pro bono attorneys generally don't take cases where you might be able to get money if you win. For example, if you were injured by a consumer product, a personal injury attorney who accepts product liability cases will be able to help you with no upfront costs (they'll take a percentage of your compensation instead).
- Do I qualify for help based on income? If you are near the federal poverty line, (at $13,590 for 2022 for a single individual) you are most likely eligible for legal aid. But eligibility requirements will be different for different organizations, so the best bet is to contact the organization and ask.
- Would legal organizations focusing on civil rights be interested in my case? Certain organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and others, will offer to represent clients if their case deals directly with an issue they care about. The ACLU often represents clients in First Amendment cases, for example. The Institute for Justice is a public interest law firm that takes cases involving "abuses of government power." Getting these organizations involved in your case is more difficult than going to Legal Aid, but for some higher-income individuals with the right case it's the best option.
Step 2: Intake
Once you find a pro bono organization that accepts the type of case you need, you will have to contact that organization and go through its intake process. The organization you contact will help you with all of the information they need. Some tips to make intake go more smoothly include:
- Gather all of the documentation they request. If there are income eligibility requirements, for example, you may need to provide tax returns or evidence you are on some kind of income-based public support, like food stamps. Try to gather these and keep them in a safe place so you can move your case along.
- Be honest. If you are going to legal aid or another organization, such as an immigration clinic, you can be honest about your situation. If you are meeting with an attorney who is considering representing you, you are protected by attorney-client privilege even if you aren't paying them (and even if they are funded by the government). Your immigration attorney is not obligated to report you to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example. It's best to be upfront with your attorney.
Step 3: Understand What Exactly You're Getting Help For
Your pro bono attorney might not represent you for every legal matter you are facing. At the outset you should be clear on what exactly you are getting help for. For example, if you have escaped or are trying to escape from domestic abuse, a pro bono attorney may help you get a temporary restraining order. However, it is unlikely that attorney would continue to represent you at no cost if you get a divorce and can afford an attorney to represent you on matters such as property division.
- Ask what's in the representation agreement. Your pro bono attorney will walk you through everything you need to know about what they will help you with.
- Understand court and filing fees. In some cases you may have to pay for filing fees or court costs. Your attorney will be able to say at the outset whether this is a possibility.
Step 4: Stay Involved
While your pro bono attorney can be an invaluable resource, it is still your case. You will need to be involved. Respond to your attorney, understand what you need to do to be successful in your legal matter, and make sure you let your attorney know if you have moved, don't have a permanent address, or can't be easily reached. Don't be afraid to ask questions if something isn't clear. While your attorney has all of the same professional responsibilities to non-paying clients as paying clients, a lot of pro bono organizations are short-staffed. Feel free to politely ask about how your case is going if you don't know what's next or haven't heard anything for awhile..