When newly graduated law students take their oath to the state bar association, they promise to fulfill a variety of professional obligations to the public. Among them is the promise to assist when possible the less fortunate in society.
One of the primary ways that attorneys help the less fortunate is by taking legal cases pro bono or for free. When you want to hire a pro bono to represent you and your case, you can find one in your city or state by using any number of legal resources to connect clients with attorneys who are willing and available to work pro bono.
State Bar Association
The state bar association is one of the foremost legal resources that the public has when trying to find pro bono lawyers. This association regulates the entire legal industry in the state. It keeps a catalog of attorneys in every legal specialty and maintains attorneys’ contact information for public reference.
It also maintains a list of attorneys who regularly take cases for pro bono. When you need an attorney who will not charge you any money for working your case, you can call the state bar association and ask for a referral to one who has a record of taking pro bono cases.
The referral should not cost you anything. Many state bar associations even have toll-free numbers and email addresses that the public can use to avoid incurring charges for contacting them.
It should be noted, however, that a referral from the state bar association is not a guarantee of legal services. In fact, the lawyer that you are referred to could already be working a case pro bono or have a heavy caseload that leaves little time for your legal situation.
Further, because pro bono lawyers do not get paid for their services, they cannot afford to take more tha one or two free cases each year. The state bar association may not keep record to how many cases a lawyer has worked for free already and how many more he or she is willing to take on this year. You will need to remember these factors when contacting an attorney to inquire about having your case worked at no cost.
Another accessible option that you have for getting free or low-cost legal services involves applying for legal aid. Legal aid is a service that provides access to an attorney for the indigent, low income earners and people deemed to be at-risk in the community.
To qualify for free services, you generally have to make at or below the federally recognized poverty level of income. If your income is slightly above that level, you could be asked to reimburse the legal aid program for part of your services. If your income is much higher than that limit, you will be denied legal services unless you are at risk of criminal punishment like jail or prison sentencing or facing a threat to your family or housing stability.
When applying for legal aid, you will be asked to submit an in-depth application and submit proof of:
- Household size
- Legal case
- Health status
- Assets like a bank account or life insurance
Depending on your case, you could be required to join a waiting list that prioritizes in what order your case will be handled. Urgent cases that involve loss of housing or threat to a person’s life will be handled before less critical cases.
If you are charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire an attorney, you can have a public defender appointed to represent you. A public defender is an attorney who either works exclusively for the public defender’s office in your city or state. He or she can also be a private practice attorney who offers his or her time to defending public defense cases.
A public defender does not charge you for your legal services. Instead, he or she is paid with funds made available by the state to the public defender’s office and the state bar association. The court will review your income and financial situation to find out if you can contribute anything to your own defense costs and bill you if you are able to pay part of your legal services.
Your public defender is obligated to provide you with the same quality of legal services that you get if you were able to pay for a private practice attorney or law firm. These lawyers routinely handle criminal defense cases dealing with:
- Rape and sexual assault
They do not handle cases dealing with civil matters, however. You are not obligated to have a public defender appointed to you if your legal situation involves a civil complaint like being sued by a creditor.
University Legal Clinics
Law schools many times offer legal clinics to the public. These clinics are staffed by law students who are nearing graduation and need to obtain real-life experience handling cases for clients.
These students provide free legal services to the public under the supervision of their law professors. While they typically will not handle criminal cases, they do take on matters dealing with:
- Probate law
- Estate planning
- Debt collection
- Child custody and support
- Uncontested divorces
The number of cases that law school students agree to take each semester is limited. You could have to sign up for a waiting list to have your case handled for free through one of these clinics.
Lawyers in every legal specialty take pro bono cases as a way to fulfill their state bar association oath. The number of cases that they take for free can be limited, however. When you cannot afford to hire an attorney of your own, you want to find out what lawyers in your area work for pro bono. These resources can connect you to pro bono attorneys in your city or state.