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 free legal aid and pro bono legal services.

By , Attorney

A legal aid or legal services office is a group of lawyers who represent people who cannot afford to pay a lawyer. Most offices handle only civil, not criminal cases; and most do not take bankruptcies, divorce cases, or personal injury cases. 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.

A pro bono lawyer takes a case for free, and otherwise works for fee-paying clients.

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 are expert in matters of 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 (see "Where Did Legal Aid Come From?"), 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 refers to work a lawyer does for free. All lawyers are encouraged to devote some of their time to volunteer representation of those who otherwise would lack access to justice. These cases are taken "pro bono."

When a civil law firm takes a case pro bono, it does so generally for marketing reasons, wanting to burnish its reputation. But it won't want to anger its paying clients, so it chooses "safe cases." More importantly, pro bono lawyers are rarely as efficient as professional legal aid attorneys, nor are they as competent to handle cutting-edge cases as their counterparts. On the other hand, if a civil firm that's well-stocked with associates, paralegals, and support staff decides to throw its resources behind a time-intensive case, the result 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

Begin by entering these search queries in your browser:

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

If you find some matches, go to the websites and read about the kinds of cases the organization will take (most have geared-up to handle COVID-related cases, which always involve housing). 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.

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.

Pro Bono Representation

As explained, individual lawyers and law firms offer pro bono services. Try these searches:

  • Pro Bono Resource Directory maintained by the American Bar Association. Results might include some legal aid offices as well as individual law firms.
  • Contact your local or state bar association (a professional organization dedicated to advancing the careers and education of their members). Search for [Your state or city] bar association. You might find lawyers that list their willingness to take cases for free.
  • Contact the organization or state agency that oversees lawyer licensing in your state. Search for [Your state] lawyer licensing. The site might indicate which lawyers or firms offer pro bono representation.
  • Visit the local law school. Many have legal clinics where students, supervised by attorneys, take cases for free.
  • Call the local courthouse. 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.