How to Find Legal Help When You Can’t Afford a Lawyer

Whether you need help drawing up a will or a contract — or you’re facing some sort of legal jeopardy or dilemma — hiring an attorney can be expensive.

According to USLegal.com and related websites, most lawyers charge between $100 and $300 an hour. That can feel prohibitive if you need a lawyer to get you out of a legal jam or protect your assets, but you don’t feel like you have any money to spare. Here are some reasons you may need a lawyer:

— Family law issues, like a contentious divorce.

— Estate planning.

— Personal injury.

— Criminal charges.

— A restraining order.

— Your business needs to be restructured or dissolved.

— You are facing bankruptcy.

[SEE: Things to Do When You’re Deep in Debt.]

In a criminal proceeding, if you can’t afford legal assistance, a court will appoint an attorney for you. In a civil case, generally described as a dispute between two private parties, to get legal representation, you have to get creative.

How to Find Free Legal Help

If you can’t afford an attorney, here are some strategies to try:

— Contact the city courthouse.

— Seek free lawyer consultations.

— Look to legal aid societies.

— Visit a law school.

— Contact your county or state bar association.

— Go to small claims court.

Depending on your situation, you can employ a variety of strategies to get free legal advice or cheap legal assistance. Read on for more information on each option.

Contact the City Courthouse

Andrea Vacca, a collaborative divorce attorney in New York City and the owner of Vacca Family Law Group, says at least with divorces, “some courts offer free assistance to parties who want to fill out their own uncontested divorce paperwork.”

Still, whether it’s a divorce or something else bringing you to court, if you don’t have a lawyer, a logical move is to call the courthouse and ask what resources are available.

Seek Free Lawyer Consultations

Some attorneys offer free consultations — usually by phone or video conference. Even if it’s just a 15-minute call, you may at least get a better sense of what you’re in for. You might also be able to get some guidance on who can help you for free or if there’s a cheap attorney, or at least an affordable attorney, that you can hire.

[Read: 15 Creative Ways to Save Money.]

Look to Legal Aid Societies

Legal aid societies are nonprofit organizations that provide free legal services to low-income people. While this is certainly worth exploring, the problem for many households is that they make too much money to qualify for help.

And even if you have a low income, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll receive legal aid. According to a 2017 report by the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit organization established by Congress to ensure equal access to justice for all Americans, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help in the previous year. But a lot of people are eligible. A 2020 LSC report revealed that in 2019, the latest year for which data is available, approximately 53.9 million Americans were eligible for LSC-funded civil legal aid.

You can find more ideas at LawHelp.org, a nonprofit aimed at connecting people with low and moderate incomes to free legal aid programs in their communities.

Visit a Law School

You could also consider hiring a law student to give you advice.

Many law schools have pro bono programs in which law students offer free legal advice. Schools that offer such programs include American University, Appalachian School of Law, Arizona State University, Howard University, Tulane University and many others.

If you have a university in your area with a law school, check to see if legal aid is available.

Contact Your County or State Bar Association

The Akron Bar Association, in Akron, Ohio, is an example of what’s available. You can call the second and fourth Fridays of each month from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., as part of the Ask an Attorney Service, and they’ll answer legal questions for free.

If you need advice that doesn’t fit in that window, the association offers a 30-minute consultation with an attorney for $30, and for certain topics — for instance, Social Security, unemployment, workers’ compensation and personal injuries, among others — they’ll offer the 30-minute consultation for free.

Go to Small Claims Court

Unfortunately, this isn’t a viable option for everyone. For instance, you can’t go to small claims court if you’re trying to work out your financial affairs after a divorce. But if the stakes are fairly low and someone owes you money or is trying to collect money from you, and it isn’t worth risking lawyer fees, you might consider small claims court.

Your home state will dictate how high the stakes are. For instance, in Delaware, the most you will be awarded or lose is $25,000; in Rhode Island, the amount is $5,000.

[SEE: 15 Steps to Achieve Financial Freedom.]

Do I Need a Lawyer?

After talking to an attorney or law student, you may decide that you do need a lawyer — and you may find one who will work with a small budget. An attorney might give you a discount. Also, many attorneys offer payment plans that allow you to pay monthly instead of one huge sum all at once.

Of course, you could find a pro bono lawyer, or you might find someone willing to take your case on contingency. That is, if you lose your case, you won’t pay, but if you win, the law firm will take a portion of the money awarded to you.

However, it’s important to proceed carefully before choosing a lawyer. Choose a reputable attorney and make sure the rate is agreed upon before the lawyer takes your case. And don’t be shocked if an attorney turns you down. It’s risky for lawyers to take cases on contingency, and they need to be confident that a judge or jury will side with you.

While no legal expert will suggest that you represent yourself, it is an option if you’re in a financial bind. That doesn’t mean it is a good option, though.

Bert Martinez, a revenue and marketing strategist based in Phoenix, once represented himself in court. His problems started after sending a junk-fax spammer a cease and desist letter.

That letter escalated into a lawsuit. According to Martinez, the spammer’s company claimed the letter had to be researched by its law firm, which set the company back thousands of dollars. Martinez found himself in court, defending himself against two attorneys. Before his court date, however, he went to the courthouse to listen to proceedings. He suggests sitting in court every day for a week or even up to 10 days.

“Introduce yourself to the clerk of that courtroom,” he advises. “Explain why you’re there — to observe and become familiar with how this courtroom operates.” By visiting the courtroom, Martinez says, you can see what kind of judge you’ll likely be working with, and you’ll become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the courtroom, which will make things less intimidating later. You have to be prepared, Martinez says, because “you’ll be held to attorneys’ standards.”

Martinez prevailed. Of course, many people don’t have the time to take off work and visit a courtroom for five to 10 business days or to study up on law for hours and hours.

In short, if you can’t find enough free legal advice to help you have your day in court, it’s a wise decision to seek a competent attorney — even if you feel like you can’t financially swing it. If your legal problem is serious enough, money or no money, it may be the case that you can’t afford not to hire one.

More from U.S. News

20 Creative Ways to Save Money

Fast Financial Fixes

15 Steps to Achieve Financial Freedom

How to Find Legal Help When You Can’t Afford a Lawyer originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 05/09/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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