Legal Aid and Pro Bono Representation and How to Find It

Learn about legal aid and pro bono representation, the difference between them, and how to find these types of free legal help.

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law

A legal aid or legal services office is a group of lawyers who represent people who cannot afford to pay a lawyer. A pro bono lawyer takes a case for free but otherwise works for fee-paying clients.

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 and Pro Bono: What's the Difference?

"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.

How to Find a Legal Aid Office or Pro Bono Attorney

The fastest way to find legal aid or pro bono opportunities near you is to go online.

Legal Aid, Legal Services, and Pro Bono Help

For legal aid and legal services, begin by trying these search queries:

  • [Your state, county, or city] Legal Services
  • [Your state, county, or city] Legal Aid
  • Free legal services in [your state, county, or city]

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:

  • Visit I Need Legal Help, a page maintained by the Legal Services Corporation, where you can look for legal aid organizations by address or geographic location.
  • Check out, which lists information by state, covering various civil issues and immigration.
  • Go to the American Bar Association's Free Legal Help page. It compiles several useful resources for individuals searching for pro bono or legal aid assistance.
  • If you're a veteran, servicemember, or military family member, the The Military Pro Bono Project offers a list of resources and links to local legal assistance programs.
  • For immigration questions, see the U.S. Department of Justice's List of Pro Bono Legal Service Providers, which lists a state's participating law firms and legal aid offices. Only about half of the states provide such services.

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.

More on Finding Pro Bono Representation

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.

  • Check out your local or state bar association, which is a professional organization dedicated to advancing the careers and education of its members. Search for "[your state, county, or city] bar association." When you go to the organization's site, you might find lawyers that list their willingness to take cases for free. You can also contact the bar association directly.
  • Visit the local law school or its website. Many law schools have legal clinics where students, supervised by attorneys, take cases for free.
  • Call the local courthouse or go to its website. Many court administrators, realizing that cases move more quickly and smoothly when everyone has a lawyer, have taken pains to link up willing lawyers with clients who need them.
  • Contact your church or other house of worship. Some religious organizations or local chapters or houses offer legal assistance to their congregants.
  • Go to the ABA's free legal answers site, which allows qualifying visitors in participating states to ask a question of a pro bono lawyer.