In 2016, the American Bar Association released a report, which estimated every year there are 100 million potential cases that never go to court because the wronged party is unable to afford a lawyer. A common misconception regarding the law is that every case guarantees the right to an attorney through the Sixth Amendment. The Sixth Amendment only ensures a lawyer if you are facing criminal charges severe enough to result in imprisonment. In any other circumstance, including cases relating to health, safety and shelter, you are responsible for hiring your own attorney.
Lawyers are traditionally expensive to hire, but there are many resources available to help alleviate the costs. The best way to save on legal costs is retaining a pro bono lawyer. In a pro bono case, your lawyer agrees to represent you without payment. The majority of law firms require attorneys to take a certain number of pro bono cases each year. Some law colleges also require students to participate and assist in pro bono cases.
Why Attorneys Take Pro Bono Cases
While it may initially sound too good to be true, there are many attorneys in the United States willing to work for free. A common misconception is only new or inexperienced attorneys take pro bono cases. It is not uncommon for newer attorneys to assist with pro bono cases, but they are typically guided by an experienced mentor. Many law firms take a large number of pro bono cases because it is a good way to build the firm’s reputation. Not only is the firm shown helping a community member for free, but it is another win overall for the firm.
As with any case, pro bono lawyers still have the right to deny a case. For many attorneys, the determining factor is who is involved in the case. Some attorneys only work pro bono cases when large businesses or corporations are involved. For these attorneys, it shows their firm is willing to represent an underdog. It also shows commitment from the firm, since they are willing to go up against all the resources of a major company. Other attorneys are more interested in the nature of the case, such as only working pro bono for auto accidents.
Finding a Pro Bono Lawyer
Because whether or not an attorney works pro bono is decided on a case-by-case basis, it can be difficult to find a pro bono lawyer. One of the most effective ways to find a pro bono attorney is through recommendation. Ask your friends or family members if they ever worked with a pro bono attorney. If you cannot find any direct recommendations, the next step is to reach out to law firms in your area. Some law firms mention in their advertisements they accept pro bono cases. Even if the firm does not mention it, there is no harm in asking.
The American Bar Association has a list of online resources to help locate pro bono lawyers. There is also a search engine specifically for pro bono organizations in your state. If you are overwhelmed with options, you can also reach out to local law colleges. Most law schools run pro bono programs. While these are student groups, the school is affiliated with local firms. Students take the cases to the firm to find a mentor to help represent the case. Even if the school does not run a pro bono program, there is a good chance they can recommend a list of firms who frequently take pro bono cases.
Once you find an attorney, the next step is arranging a consultation. Do not accept any offers from firms that charge a consultation fee. During the consultation, be honest and upfront while answering questions.
While most of the questions will be about your case, the attorney may also ask you questions about your finances. These questions are not designed to exclude you from receiving pro bono assistance. There are no financial requirements that must be met for a pro bono case. Typically, attorneys ask about your finances because it either directly relates to the case or helps them assess how much you can sue for in damages.
Legal Services Corporation (LSC)
In addition to pro bono attorneys, you may be eligible for free legal representation through the LSC. The LSC is a federal group with offices in every state. The goal of the LSC is to provide legal aid for any individuals who cannot reasonably afford an attorney. Unlike a pro bono attorney, there are stricter requirements for getting assistance from the LSC. As of writing, you must be at least 125 percent below the poverty threshold to qualify. You must submit several documents to prove your finances, including bank statements, tax returns and recent pay stubs.
The LSC is not a law firm. The organization works with firms and legal nonprofit groups in your state to find legal assistance. If there are any associated fees with your case, the LSC covers all of the costs. The LSC has an online resource to find nearby offices in your area.