The reality is you don’t have to be poor to not be able to afford an attorney. Hourly rates for service usually run into several hundred dollars per hour, and while common procedures like divorce or bankruptcy are often performed at a flat rate, expect to have to come up with a thousand or more dollars just to get started. Many people find themselves in the unfortunate position of making too much money to qualify for legal aid but not enough to afford full price. What do you do then? Consider some of the creative and lower cost options below.
You might not realize it, but if you are charged with a crime the court will appoint a attorney for your defense even if you can’t afford it. It has been a longheld philosophy of the American (and other) judicial systems that a person should not be found guilty of a crime without competent legal representation. You don’t even have to ask for it. The judge is sure to offer. Unless you’re a secret law genius, it would be a good idea to accept. For legal proceedings that aren’t criminal in nature – such as the aforementioned divorce, bankruptcy, or if you want to sue someone – you’re going to need to get creative in finding legal help on a budget.
The nearest law school might be an excellent place to locate a third-year student and pick his or her brain about the topic at hand. With most schools, a law student is able to give advice under the direction of a qualified faculty member who currently practices. By the time a student reaches their third year, they have a lot of knowledge already packed into their heads and, in many cases, would be more than willing to help someone out and gain real world experience at the same time. While they can’t accompany you to court and speak for you, the advice you receive could be invaluable about which direction to take.
Small claims is available in all states, and is meant to serve as a forum to resolve lower level disputes between people without the necessity of an attorney getting involved. The drawback is that the value of the amount in question is capped at different levels depending on the state you live in. Some states let you utilize the small claims process for anything up to $15,000 (greetings, Delaware). The bad news is some cap the limit as $1,500 (Hello, Arkansas).. The playing field is level in small claims because lawyers are not allowed to officially participate. If you arm yourself with good legal advice from a law student and can present yourself reasonably well in front of the judge, you have a good chance of prevailing.
Pro Bono Jackpot
As a professional responsibility, all practicing attorneys are required to provide a certain number of pro bono hours to clients each year. That means free. As you might imagine, this kind of representation is in high demand. Try contacting your county or state bar association and ask for any current programs that offer pro bono or reduced-fee legal advice and representation. You never know what might available until you ask. How eager the bar is to help you out with this varies from state to state, but it is a real thing.
The Bottom Line
Don’t be afraid to shop around for legal services. We do it for everything else. Most lawyers offer an initial free consultation. Take advantage of it! Not all of them will price everything equally. There is also the chance they will cap fees at a certain level or even accept a payment plan. You won’t know unless you ask. Good luck out there.