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If you do need a lawyer, realize that only a few lawyers know enough about living together issues to be worthy of serious consideration. Unfortunately, lawyers who don’t know much about the law in this area (or who are even hostile to the idea of living together) can’t always be trusted to decline this type of work. In short, it’s up to you to be sure any lawyer you consult has the skills and experience you need.

There are several ways to find a good lawyer:

Personal referrals. This is your best approach. If you know someone whose judgment you respect who was pleased with a lawyer who helped with a family law problem, call that lawyer first. Even if the lawyer can’t take on your case or doesn’t have the experience necessary, he or she will likely be able to recommend someone else who is experienced, competent, and available.

Prepaid legal help. If you’re a member of a prepaid legal plan that offers a certain amount of free advice for a yearly fee, your membership fee will normally entitle you to several free consultations. Obviously, you’ll want to take advantage of this time, especially if you only need a document reviewed or want advice on a fairly routine issue.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the lawyers available through these plans will know about the problems of unmarried couples. Also, whenever you use any service offered by a prepaid insurance plan, be forewarned: The lawyer is probably getting only a modest payment from the plan for dealing with you and may have agreed to this minimal amount in the hope of selling other legal services not covered by the monthly premium. So if a plan lawyer immediately recommends an expensive legal procedure, get a second opinion before you say yes.

Group legal practice. Some unions, employers, and consumer action organizations offer group legal plans to their members or employees. These plans are provided by companies such as Prudential, LawPhone, Midwest Legal Services, and others. As with prepaid legal plans, the idea behind these programs is to allow members to obtain comprehensive legal assistance free or at low rates. If you’re a member of such a plan, and the service you need is covered for free, start there. But some of these plans offer only a few free services, with the rest covered at a supposedly reduced rate. This can be a poor consumer deal. You may be referred to a lawyer who is not an expert in the problems of unmarried couples, or a lawyer who is overburdened with a large number of clients.

Lawyer referral panels. Most county bar associations will provide the names of at least some attorneys who practice in the area. Typically, you can get a referral to an attorney who claims to specialize in family law, and an initial consultation, either for free or a low fee. A problem is that the bar association referrals usually provide only minimal screening of the attorneys listed, meaning that the lawyers who participate may not be the most experienced or competent in your area. Indeed, many lawyers who are well regarded in your community don’t list with these services, because they already have more than enough business. Of course, you may find a skilled attorney willing to work for a reasonable fee this way, but before you become anyone’s client, check out that lawyer’s credentials, experience, and references.

Self-help clinics. Many county bar associations and some law schools set up do-it-yourself clinics at little or no cost. These clinics often provide an overview of the procedure involved, assistance in completing forms, and help preparing to appear in court in areas such as obtaining temporary restraining orders, uncontested divorces, and guardianships. Many of these clinics are open only to low-income people, and most are limited to serving residents of a particular geographical area.

Yellow pages and Internet. The yellow pages and Internet have extensive lists of attorneys, both by specialty and alphabetical order. Many of the ads quote initial consultation rates. If all else fails, let your fingers do the walking (or typing). But before you get extensively involved with a lawyer you don’t know, ask for and check his or her references.

Online lawyer directories. There are quite a few online lawyer directories that will help you find a lawyer in your area. Most of them are not very different from the yellow pages, in that they’ll just provide you with a name, address, and telephone number. Nolo’s lawyer directory is different, in that it provides detailed profiles of each lawyer who advertises there. Find the directory at www.lawyers.nolo.com.

by: Frederick Hertz

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