What if You Can’t Afford an Attorney?

No doubt hiring an attorney to represent you in a legal situation can be a big expense, and some attorneys are more expensive than others. For example, some of the highest-paid lawyers include patent and intellectual property attorneys, corporate attorneys, and tax lawyers. 

You have to remember that not every lawyer charges in the traditional way. These non-traditional attorney-client relationships may be available for a wide range of legal claims include employment-related claims including discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave rights, and wage claims.

Contingency Fees

If you need certain types of legal representation, some like wrongful death attorneys charge a contingency fee. In a contingency fee arrangement, common in personal injury, attorneys are paid only if they recover compensation for their client either through a settlement or a court judgment.

If someone is hurt because of an accident and needs a lawyer to help them, the arrangement allows for the client to get that help without having to pay upfront. 

A contingency fee means that you’re only going to have to pay your attorney if there’s monetary recovery for your case. 

The payment for the attorney’s services is contingent on you receiving compensation. In a contingency fee arrangement, the attorney takes a percentage of recovered amount, which is agreed on ahead of time. The percentage is usually 33% or 1/3. The exact amount an attorney gets includes who pays for the costs of litigation and the complexity level as well as the risk of the case.  

The riskier a case is for an attorney to take on, or the more complex, the higher the contingency fee percentage is likely to be. If you win, you’ll probably have to pay some other costs of litigation, but there can be a big difference based on when your attorney takes their contingency fee percentage. Do they take it before or after?

A contingency fee arrangement isn’t the only way attorneys are paid, though, which goes back to the original question of what you can do if you can’t afford an attorney. 

Court-Appointed Attorneys

In some legal situations, an attorney might be appointed to you. These are usually high-stakes cases. Criminal cases are the most common example of where you could be appointed a lawyer if you can’t afford one. 

As part of the Miranda Warning, mentioned is the fact that if you can’t afford an attorney, you can have one provided because you have the right. 

If you’re arrested for a crime, you have to be advised of your right to a lawyer. 

Pro Bono

Some attorneys are willing to volunteer their time, and when they do so, that’s called pro bono representation. This just means free representation. Most counties and cities around the country have free legal clinics. At a minimum, at these pro bono clinics, you may be able to get general advice, or they can help you fill out forms. 

The American Bar Association does recommend that every lawyer in the U.S. donate 50 hours of service pro bono a year. Some do more and some less, but it’s more common to find someone who will do pro bono work for you than you might think. 

There are also legal aid societies. 

Attorneys who work with legal aid are either an employee of the organization and are paid by a charity, or they’ve volunteered. You may have to demonstrate that you meet income criteria. You also might have to show that you’re likely to succeed in your legal case. There are situations where a legal aid society could ask that it is allowed to recover fees from the other side with a successful case.  

You won’t get that money if they do because you paid nothing. 

Legal clinics usually take civil instead of criminal cases, and along with income restrictions, they may also have restrictions on other resources. 

What About Custody or Family Law?

When you’re going through divorce or a child custody situation, it could be scary to think that you could lose simply because you can’t afford legal representation. 

Again, there are options available to you. 

You can go to a charity or nonprofit organization. 

You can also get in touch with your local courthouse. They can provide assistance and guidance to people who are going through family law situations and can’t afford lawyers. 

Other options include:

  • Talk to a local bar association. They tend to have facilitators that can help process your legal claims. 
  • Look for grant programs that help cover the legal fees of people who are low-income. Some of these programs will take your assets into consideration, so keep that in mind. 
  • Talk to students who are in law school. If a student has received a fair amount of training, they might be able to provide you with some helpful advice. Some law schools have formalized programs where you can hire students for significantly lower fees to help you. 
  • At a minimum, get a free consultation. Almost every lawyer provides free consultations so you can learn more about what you might expect and how to prepare. 

What If You Can’t Afford a Tax Attorney?

Finally, there are situations where people need help with a tax problem. 

There is a program called the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic. These represent taxpayers who have to go before the IRS. They also help taxpayers who are dealing with audits, collection disputes, and appeals. These attorneys can help people respond to notices from the IRS and deal with accounting mistakes or problems. 

If you’re a low-income taxpayer or if you speak English as a second language and can’t understand both the rights and responsibilities as a taxpayer, you may be eligible for the program for a free or nominal fee. 

What’s important if you need legal representation is to realize there are options available. You may even be able to work with an attorney and talk to them about your financial situation, so they can bill you over time. The worst-case scenario is not having legal representation when you need it. It can end up being significantly more expensive for you in the long run, so explore all the possible solutions.

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