Before you get out your checkbook, consider that free, low-cost, and contingency legal help is sometimes available. Here are several situations in which you may be able to save on attorney fees.
If you face criminal charges. If you've been charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire your own lawyer, you have a constitutional right to an attorney at government expense. At your request, an attorney, often from a public defender’s office, can be appointed to represent you. For more information, see the Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman-Barrett (Nolo) or the Criminal Law section of Nolo’s website.
If you qualify for legal aid. If you can't afford an attorney, you may qualify for legal aid (often called legal services). Legal aid lawyers are usually federally or state funded lawyers who represent people with low incomes in a variety of legal situations, including eviction defense, denial of unemployment compensation or other benefits, and consumer credit problems. If you think you might qualify, look in your telephone book or ask a local attorney, lawyer referral service, or elected representative for the nearest legal aid office. Because of recent cutbacks in federal funding, you will probably find that legal aid is available only for a few types of legal problems and that in some programs waits for services can be lengthy.
If your claim involves an issue of social justice. If your dispute involves a social justice issue and has wide implications beyond your individual situation, an attorney or public interest legal organization with an interest in that issue may represent you for free (“pro bono”) or for a reduced fee. For example, if your claim involves sexual harassment by an employer, abuse by a spouse or partner, discrimination in housing or employment, freedom of speech or religion, environmental pollution, or access to medical treatment, you may find an attorney or organization willing to represent you pro bono. Contact a local bar association or even better, a private organization that deals with the kind of problem you face, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, or the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (gay and lesbian rights). The Trial Lawyers for Public Justice organization maintains a public interest database and links at its website (www.tlpj.org).