Most legal aid and legal services offices handle only civil, not criminal, cases. (Criminal defendants who can't afford lawyers separately get court-appointed counsel.) Most offices don't take bankruptcies, divorce cases, or personal injury cases. But, when it comes to other areas of law, they typically represent both plaintiffs (people who sue someone else) and defendants (the people being sued). Legal aid lawyers are paid by grants and might receive some government funding.
Pro bono attorneys might take cases in any number of areas of law. For instance, they might handle the appeal of a criminal conviction. Pro bono work is typically something these lawyers do on the side, when they're not working for clients who pay them.
"Legal aid" refers to a group of lawyers who work exclusively for the clients who qualify for their services—poor clients. These attorneys tend to be experts in landlord-tenant law, consumer law, welfare matters, and other areas of law that many poor people encounter. In keeping with the origins of the concept of legal aid, they are on the lookout for cases that can result in legal reform, not just a victory for a solitary litigant.
"Pro bono" is a Latin term that means "for the public good" and refers to work a lawyer does for free. No state requires pro bono work as a condition of maintaining a law license, but the American Bar Association urges all lawyers to devote at least 50 hours each year to volunteer representation of those who otherwise lack access to justice (many states do likewise).
Even when law firms perform pro bono work, their motives—and the outcomes—might not be what you'd expect. Do they take a case because it's the righteous thing to do? Maybe not.
When a civil law firm takes a case pro bono, it might be partially motivated by marketing reasons, wanting to burnish its reputation. To avoid alienating its paying clients, firms might look for "safe" cases—those that will not be politically unpopular or involve a controversial subject or client.
Will the outcome be better when a non-legal aid lawyer handles a case for free? Not necessarily, because pro bono lawyers are rarely as efficient as professional legal aid attorneys, nor are they necessarily as competent to handle cutting-edge cases as their legal aid counterparts. On the other hand, when a civil firm that's well-stocked with experienced associates, paralegals, and support staff decides to throw its resources behind a time-intensive case, the results can be impressive.
The fastest way to find legal aid or pro bono opportunities near you is to go online.
For legal aid and legal services, begin by trying these search queries:
If you find some matches, go to the websites and read about the kinds of cases the organization will take. You might find a pre-screening application, or simply an invitation to call the office and speak with an intake attorney. If several offices appear to be a match for your case, contact them all.
To find pro bono assistance, try this search: [Your state, county, or city] pro bono legal help
You might also find the following links to be helpful in finding legal help in your area:
All legal aid offices require that their clients not exceed maximum income requirements (look for these requirements on the website). Before visiting your local office, gather tax returns, pay stubs, bank statements, and anything else that will give a current, accurate, and complete picture of your financial situation.
As explained, some individual lawyers and law firms offer pro bono services. Follow the suggestions below to find lawyers in your area who might take your case for free.