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How to Hire a Lawyer When You Have Low Income

How to Hire a Lawyer When You Have Low Income… Whether you need to draw up a will or get a divorce, it’s not advisable to take care of legal matters without a lawyer. You need someone who understands the laws in your state to help you navigate the paperwork and appear with you in court. Lawyers can be expensive, but there are several ways to retain a lawyer if you have low income. You can contact a legal aid society, find an independent pro bono lawyer, or arrange a payment plan that works for your budget.

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    Look into federally funded legal aid programs. There is a large network of legal aid programs that operate on federal grants. Legal aid programs employ lawyers and paralegals to offer free services to people who are eligible.

    • If you need help with divorce proceedings, employment issues, landlord and tenant issues, and a number of other legal problems, legal aid programs are an excellent resource.[1]
    • To qualify for legal aid, your income must be below a certain number. The definition of “low income” varies from state to state. In many states, your income must be below the federal poverty line. You can find that information here.[2]
    • To find out if you qualify, contact your local legal aid office.
    • To find a legal aid office, look online[3] or look up “legal aid” in the phone directory in your area.

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    Find a local pro bono program. Bar associations often offer free legal help through pro bono programs. Lawyers willing to work for free, or “pro bono,” are matched with people who qualify for free legal advice. There are also nonprofits dedicated to providing pro bono legal help to those in need. Research pro bono programs in your area by looking online or contacting a legal aid office to get a referral.[4]

    • In order to qualify for a pro bono program, you may be asked to prove that your income is below a certain amount.
    • Many local bar associations also offer programs that reduce or eliminate legal fees. They may also have a referral service that includes a free initial consultation with an attorney. Contact your local bar association, or visit the American Bar Association for more information.[5]
    • Many private law firms also have pro bono departments. These programs usually focus on specific community issues, such as police misconduct, civil rights issues, or suits against the government.
    • You can do a web search to find a private firm in your area by searching for “private law firms + pro bono work.” LawHelp.org also has a search feature for free legal aid programs in your state.[6]
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    Contact a self help legal clinic. Many states have free self help clinics designed to provide free legal advice to anyone who asks. Some clinics accept questions in person, while others accept questions submitted online. The questions are typically answered by lawyers or paralegals. In many, but not all, cases the process is confidential.[7]

    • Self help clinics are good resources when you have a question or two about the process you need to undertake, or which forms to fill out. However, they are not a substitute for actually retaining a lawyer who can help with your case.
    • To find a self help program, call your local courthouse or look online. If you find a program that accepts questions in person, arrive as early as you can to ensure that you are helped.
    • Most of the programs held by courthouses focus on specific legal issues, so make sure that you attend the right program for help with your particular issue. For example, some courts might run a “domestic relations clinic” that can help you with matters like uncontested divorces and child support modifications. These programs may also help you find a low-cost lawyer if the program cannot legally represent you.
    • District courts may hold programs that help with will planning, personal injury, landlord-tenant law, and debt collection.
    • If the program is held at a civil court, it will not likely be able to help you in criminal issues.
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    Call a legal hotline. Legal hotlines provide advice for people in specific situations, such as victims of domestic abuse. In some cases the advice is free, and in other cases it is very low cost. Do a search for legal hotlines in your state, and find one that will give advice appropriate to your situation.

    • It’s important to call a hotline in your state of residence. The laws differ from state to state, so you might get the wrong advice if you call a hotline in another state.
    • For example, many bar associations in Texas run a “Legal Line” on certain days of the week. These hotlines can help victims of domestic violence, people facing employment issues, and the elderly.[8]
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    See if a local law school has a clinic program that offers free legal services. Many law schools run legal clinics in order to give the law students experience. Clinics can take general civil or criminal matters, or they can be geared toward one type of legal case, such as a foreclosure relief clinic or a domestic violence clinic. Legal help in the clinic is usually offered by law students who are supervised by experienced law professors.[9]

    • The law students themselves are not licensed attorneys. However, they are heavily supervised by experienced lawyers who will make sure that everything on your case is done correctly.
    • To find a legal clinic, look on the websites of law schools in your area.
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    Get a court-appointed lawyer. If you are the defendant in a criminal case, you have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford to hire a private attorney, you might be eligible to get a court-appointed defense attorney.[10] You’ll need to provide information about your income to show that you aren’t able to hire a private attorney.

    • The first time you appear in front of the judge, you will be asked whether you are represented by an attorney. If you answer no, you’ll be asked whether you want a court-appointed attorney. From there, the procedure for working with the court-appointed attorney varies from state to state.


Finding a Payment Plan That Works for You

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    Look for a sliding-fee program. If your income is too high to qualify for free legal services, there are sliding-fee programs with affordable attorney fees.[11] Each state has a set of programs designed to help people with moderate income handle legal issues without having to pay thousands of dollars.

    • To find a program in your state, contact your state’s bar association or search online to find out more.
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    Work out a payment plan with a lawyer. Some lawyers are willing to work out a payment plan so that you don’t have to pay all of the fees at once. You may be able to work out a plan to pay a certain amount every month until everything you owe has been paid.[12]

    • It’s up to the individual lawyer to decide whether to make this option available. Lawyers are not required to provide a payment plan.
    • When you first contact a lawyer, before you go to his or her office for an in-person meeting, ask whether the lawyer will consider accepting a payment plan. Make sure you know exactly what to expect before meeting in person
    • Whether you end up wanting to retain the lawyer’s services or not, you’re likely to be charged for that first meeting unless the lawyer specifies a free initial consult.
    • Explain your situation to the lawyer in question, give him/her your financial statement, and discuss what you need done.
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    Find out if you can pay a contingency fee. This means that you only pay the lawyer if the case swings in your favor. He or she will get a percentage of the money you are awarded. If the case is lost, you won’t owe any lawyer fees.[13] Contingency fee arrangement percentages vary, but a third is common.

    • However, if you are thinking of entering into a contingency fee arrangement, know that you may be responsible for expenses even if you do not owe fees. Make sure that you understand what expenses you may be responsible for upfront. For example, many attorneys will ask you to cover filing and service fees upfront.
    • Most lawyers will take personal injury cases (injuries caused by careless drivers, property owners, or healthcare providers) on contingency.
    • Contingency fee arrangements vary, but between 30-40% is common.[14]
    • In some cases, such as criminal, divorce, or bankruptcy cases, lawyers are not permitted to charge contingency fees. In some cases, attorneys will charge you an hourly rate. However, others (especially lawyers for criminal cases) will charge you a flat one-time fee.
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    Consider hiring a younger lawyer. Younger lawyers are up to date on the most recent legal developments, but they may have fewer clients. This means they’ll have more time to devote to your case. They may charge less because they are less in demand and have fewer years of experience.[15]

    • Younger lawyers are also more likely to need to “make a name” for themselves. This means they are likely to spend a lot of energy to represent you as aggressively as they can.
    • Be aware that younger attorneys are less experienced, and often have fewer resources to handle big cases.
    • Ask your young lawyer how much experience he or she has handling cases like yours. Ask if he or she participated in a clinic, internship, or a volunteer lawyer project while in law school. These experiences will have given him or her experience and qualifications that equip him or her to handle your case.
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    Consider paying in property or barter. A lawyer may accept payment in the form of property, as long as that property is not a part of the case you are asking him or her to take. Many lawyers may also accept barter services, such as web design or accounting, in exchange for their representation.[16]

    • If you own your own business, you can offer the lawyer free services in exchange for their representation. You could even offer a stake in the business, if the case is very significant.
    • You cannot pay with property or barter if the business or property is involved in the litigation you’re seeking help with. For example, if you and your spouse jointly own a business and you are seeking a divorce, you could not offer to pay your lawyer with services from that business because your spouse also has an interest in the business.
    • Make sure to get any property or barter agreements in writing. Make the terms very clear. For example, if you are exchanging tax preparation services in exchange for legal representation, make clear how long you will provide your services (e.g., two years, three years, etc.).

Considering the Hiring Process

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    Interview several options. If it’s possible, try to interview several candidates to represent you. You may have a lower income, but you are still entitled to representation that you believe will serve your best interests. You should feel comfortable with your attorney, and interviewing him or her before hiring anyone will help you determine that.

    • Ask about fees and payment upfront. If the attorney is not forthcoming or does not answer the questions to your satisfaction, look elsewhere.
    • Ask who will do the work. It is useful to know whether the attorney you are interviewing will do most of the work. In some cases, junior attorneys and/or paralegals can handle much of the legal “legwork” for a cheaper rate. Ask if this is an option to help you save money.[17]
    • Ask about the attorney’s qualifications and experience. Ideally, the attorney should have some experience in handling matters similar to yours. At the very least, they should have the proper qualifications to handle your case, such as training in property or divorce law.[18]
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    Ask questions about the arrangement. You should have a perfectly clear understanding of the terms on which you’re hiring the attorney. In other words, what will they do for you? What will happen if they are unable to resolve your case in the way you want? What will you pay, in what method(s)?

    • If your attorney does not answer these questions to your satisfaction, do not sign any agreement. Ask for further clarification, or find another attorney.
    • Clarify what, exactly, you will be charged for. For example, some lawyers may charge for any communication with you, including a phone call or email.[19] Understand all of these charges and get them in writing.
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    Agree to a set rate. If you can get your attorney to agree to a set rate, it will give you peace of mind during your case. A set rate means that you will know what you have to pay, and when.[20]

    • Be sure to clarify any “hidden” expenses in this rate. Copying costs, postage fees, expert witness fees, etc., may be required for your case. They are not included in an attorney’s fee. Usually, the client is responsible for these expenses.
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    Offer to do any work you can yourself. Some expenses, such as copying costs and charges for time to file papers, may be avoided if you offer to do that work yourself. See if your attorney will allow you to volunteer your own time to help when possible to cut costs.
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    Consider whether a contingency fee arrangement will work for you. Contingency fees can be helpful if you have been injured or harassed and do not have money to hire a lawyer upfront. They are not available for criminal, family law, bankruptcy, immigration, business, or intellectual property cases.[21][22]

    • If the case is settled quickly or a large amount of money is recovered, you may feel as though the attorney didn’t have to work hard enough for you. The attorney will still be entitled to whatever percentage you agreed on.[23]
    • If your settlement is not as high as you had hoped, you still have to pay your attorney the agreed-upon percentage.
    • If the case goes on for a long time, which is quite common, the attorney may end up feeling frustrated by the duration and expense of the case.[24]

Avoiding Bad Lawyers

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    Avoid obvious scams and cheats. Most attorneys are ethical people who provide good representations to their clients. However, there will always be a few who are looking to scam you, or who will not adequately represent you. Consider the following when choosing an attorney.[25]
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    Do not hire a lawyer who has solicited you. If a lawyer contacts you without your permission or expressed interest, do not hire him or her. It is against the Legal Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to contact you if you have not expressed interest in his or her services, or given him or her permission to contact you.[26] [27]

    • Attorneys are not allowed to pressure you into any fee arrangement. They should give you time to consider any arrangement you may. Do not hire a lawyer who pressures you to make any agreement.[28]
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    Ask for the lawyer’s background and credentials. If the lawyer will not share these details with you, do not hire him or her.

    • Verify your lawyer’s background and credentials with the local or state bar association. You can verify the information your lawyer has given you and check whether s/he has any ethics violations or disciplinary actions on his or her record. The American Bar Association has a directory of state and local bar associations.
    • If the lawyer has been disciplined multiple times or suspended, you should generally avoid hiring him or her. If you wish, you can ask for an explanation of their conduct and make your choice then.
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    Do not hire an unethical attorney. Don’t hire an attorney who encourages you to do anything illegal or unethical. For example, a lawyer who suggests that you lie in statements or on paperwork should be avoided.[29] Never hire lawyers who make unethical offers themselves.

    • Also avoid attorneys who make specific promises about the results of your case. It is unethical for a lawyer to promise you that s/he will get a specific result for you if you hire him or her.[30]
    • An attorney cannot base the quality of representation on how much you pay. An attorney should never claim that the result of a case could change if you pay a different amount. For example, if a divorce attorney tells you that your case will have a greater chance of success if you pay for his/her “platinum” package vs the “basic” package, do not hire that attorney. This behavior is unethical. Attorneys are required to fully and competently represent you if they accept you as a client.[31]

Expert Q&A

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  • If you have a personal injury or medical malpractice case, and a lawyer says he would prefer to be paid by the hour than by contingency, then you may have a weak case. Seek a second opinion.

  • Contingency fees can be a good deal, but be aware of the drawbacks. A contingency fee is usually one-third, 33%, of the whole settlement. If you lose, you pay 33% of $0.00, which is $0.00. That means you owe nothing at all if you lose. If you settle for $100.00, you you keep $66.66, and pay $33.33 to attorney. That’s a great deal if your losses (usually medical bills or lost wages) were $60.00. You’ve been made whole, plus you’ve got $6.66 in your pocket for your troubles. However, if your losses were $80.00, then that may seem like a hard bargain. You still get a $100.00 settlement: you get still to keep $66.66, and still pay the attorney $33.33; but now the $66.66 won’t cover all of your $80.00 losses. You’re un-reimbursed for $14.33. The $100.00 is probably more than you could have negotiated yourself with the insurance company, but that doesn’t make paying a lawyer any more pleasant.

  • If you live in the United States, LawHelp can help you find information websites run by a nonprofit legal services provider in your state.
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