Here are five solid insider tips for getting free legal advice and service for low-income individuals or families. I’ve generated these tips after many years practicing law and you won’t find them for free anywhere else! Website links are included.
First, let me give you a quick primer on the legal system that will help you better navigate through the morass. There are two fundamental types of legal disputes to understand: 1) criminal, and 2) civil.
A criminal dispute involves a person and a branch of government. In this situation, the person has violated a law of local, state, or federal government. For example, everything from speeding to murder falls into the category of criminal. Penalties involved in criminal matters can involve a combination of money fines and incarceration (jail or equivalent).
In contrast, a civil legal matter involves a dispute between two people, at its most simple form. It can also involve disputes between legal entities (like corporations) or any combination of the two (e.g. people and companies). Plaintiffs (the party initiating the lawsuit) can sue the defendant (the party being sued and defending the law suit) for all kinds of recovery, including money, property, or to take action or stop from taking action.
The distinction between civil and criminal legal disputes is important because it will determine which of the following sources you can approach to help you.
1) Public Defender
The United States Constitution has been interpreted to give each U.S. citizen charged with a significant crime the right to an attorney, if the citizen can’t afford one (in case you’re wondering, the case is Gideon v. Wainwright). The attorney is called a public defender and is either a paid governmental employee or an attorney in private practice who signed up with the court to accept such cases. In order to be eligible for a public defender, you must qualify by filling out an affidavit of indigency stating your household income and liabilities. You fill out the affidavit under oath and are subject to perjury, if you are not truthful. A public defender is available for most serious criminal offenses and some civil matters (such as contempt proceedings in domestic relations matters).
Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a non-profit organization created by the U.S. Congress in 1974 with 700 offices nationwide. Unlike public defenders, local LSC lawyers do not represent clients in criminal matters. Instead, they focus on specific programs involving civil legal disputes, such as landlord tenant or domestic violence matters. To find a LSC office near you, visit www.lsc.gov. You must contact the local office to determine if that office deals with your particular issue. If so, and you qualify under the income guidelines, then an LSC lawyer can represent you for little to no cost. Even if they cannot represent you, the LSC staff will be able to give you valuable information to help you understand your options.
3) Law School Clinics
Almost every law school in the country has one or more legal clinics. These are programs sponsored by the law school and staffed by law professors and law students to provide free legal services to low-income individuals. Typically, each clinic focuses on a particular area of law, such as landlord-tenant, criminal law, or appellate law. To find a local law school, visit:
Once you find a local law school, call the general number or visit their website and find out which clinics the law school hosts. Don’t be afraid to call and described your issue, if you’re not sure if it is something they will accept. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and they are there to help.
While law students will work on your case, they will be supervised by experienced law professors and local attorneys. In fact, in many instances, law students will work harder and with more energy than some seasoned attorneys. Better yet, the work is done for free.
4) Non-profit Organizations
There are many non-profit organizations or charities that will take on cases of great public interest or involving particular egregious facts. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union will take on certain cases involving violations of important Constitutional rights and violations of civil liberties (www.aclu.org). Another example is the Never Again Foundation, which will get involved in cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, and elder abuse (www.neveragainfoundation.org). In both cases, the legal representation is done at no cost to you. There are many other organizations out there that might be able to help. One way to find them is to use a search engine like Google and type in key words involved in your legal issue. Another excellent way is to go to a law library at a local courthouse or law school and ask the reference librarian for assistance. Reference librarians are some of the best legal researches around and if they can’t find the answer, it doesn’t exist.
5) Initial Consultations
An initial consultation won’t get your legal problem resolved, but what you learn during your meeting will help you understand exactly what you’re facing. In addition, simply meeting you places certain obligations on the attorney, such as informing you when your statute of limitations, or the period of time you can sue or be sued, ends. In addition, you can find out whether you have the type of case that the attorney will take on a contingency fee basis, meaning you will pay the attorney once you recover damages from the opposing party. Be aware, however, that not all attorneys take contingent fee cases, or, if they do, only under very limited situations.
What’s the best way to find an attorney who will give you a free consultation? There are two ways. The easiest, but least effective, is to use the phone book and call around. Some attorneys will state in their yellow pages add whether they give free initial consultations. A better method is to contact the local bar association (a “bar” association is a trade group of attorneys. The “bar” refers to the banister separating the judge, jury, and lawyers from the gallery or audience, not the local corner pub). All states have a statewide bar association and most large towns and cities will have a local bar association. The state bar associations maintain lists of attorneys who have signed up for referrals for specific types of legal disputes. You should call the bar association and indicate you want a referral. Explain your dispute and have them give you the names and numbers of two or three attorneys in your area. When you call the attorney, make sure you mention that you got their name from the bar association. This gives you a little better chance of getting an appointment and, possibly, a free initial consultation.
1) Court personnel can be your best friends or your worst enemies, it’s your choice. The judge’s staff and the staff in the clerk or courts office have lots of valuable information (sometimes better even than the attorneys) and wield lots of power. Get them on your side by being nice and you have a powerful ally. Make them mad and, at some point, you will regret it. Simple things like being courteous and having patience will serve you well, probably in behind-the-scenes ways you will never realize.
2) Make it personal. In some civil disputes, like a landlord tenant problem, you should not be afraid to try and communicate with your adversary. An attorney can’t talk directly to the opposing party, without getting permission from that party’s attorney, which will never be granted. As a consequence, there can be delay as lawyers try to convey and communicate issues to their clients and misunderstandings during the process can always occur. Both cost you and the other party money in more and more legal fees. Sometimes it just makes sense for the actual individuals involved to talk to each other. Sometimes a simple apology will resolve the dispute and save everyone time and money. Every case is different, but I’ve seen several situations where lawyers made things worse, not better. Particularly after they get their first bill from their attorney, individuals can get a dose of reality that makes them look at the case more realistically and be more interested in resolving the dispute with you. In a nutshell, if you can keep attorneys out of the dispute, you’re more likely to resolve it faster and for a lot less money. It’s worth a try, even if it means you have to pocket your ego for awhile.
I hope this article has helped you. I wish you justice and a speedy resolution.
Caveat: I am an attorney licensed to practice in the State of Ohio. The laws of your state may differ. This advice should not be used in place of consulting with your attorney.