There are many occasions in life when you may want legal help - creating a will, writing a prenuptial agreement, getting a divorce or handling the fallout of a bad car accident, to name just a few. But what if you can't afford a lawyer? Here are some options for getting legal help for free or at reduced cost. (Please note that the contents of this article are for informational purposes only, and are not in any way intended to be legal advice.)
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- Resolve the Problem Without Going to Court
Alternative dispute resolution, also called mediation or arbitration, is a faster and cheaper alternative to going to court. ADR Services, Inc. is one company that can help with this process. It offers a panel of retired judges and prominent attorneys specializing in various areas of law who can serve as neutral 3rd parties to resolve a dispute. The company has been in business since 1994, and its fees are clearly disclosed on its website. A similar company, JAMS, specializes in complex mediation and arbitration cases. (Find out how to file a claim with your broker and what you can expect throughout the process, in So, You Want To Take Your Broker To Court.)
- Specialized Legal Aid Groups
There are groups that help individuals with problems such as child support, disability rights, domestic violence, landlord-tenant issues and so on. These groups may not provide legal representation in court, but can provide advice in specific areas of the law. The federal government's Legal Services Corporation helps fund organizations like this all over the country. Find one near you at the LSC website. (There are still options available to those being pursued by a creditor. Find out more in Fighting Back Against Collection Lawsuits.)
- Go to the (American) Bar
The American Bar Association's website helps users locate legal resources by state. These resources include lawyer referral, foreclosure information, basic state-specific information on laws and courts, self-help advice and a guide to free legal help.
The site can help users find pro bono services, but advises that these are usually only available to individuals and families with annual income that falls below 125% of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four living in any of the lower 48 states or Washington, DC in 2009, this limit was $27,563.
Pro bono help may also be limited to specific legal situations, as determined by the individual or organization offering assistance. State bar associations can also refer you to reduced-cost or free legal services.
- Unbundled Legal Services
Unbundled legal services can be a good option for people who have simple legal issues, like getting a divorce where no property or children are involved or writing a simple will. It may be hard to find an attorney who will agree to work with you in this manner, but do-it-yourself legal service companies like We the People and LegalZoom are also an option.
LegalZoom, a website founded in 2001, helps people create their own commonly-used legal documents such as articles of incorporation, wills, living trusts, trademarks, patents and copyrights. It can also prepare prenuptial agreements, divorces, name changes, real estate deed transfers, real estate leases and more.
The website asks users a series of questions, which can be completed with assistance from customer service if necessary. Document assistants then review these answers for clarity and check for common mistakes. For a fee, the company creates your final legal documents and, in many cases, files them with the appropriate government agency.
Using a service like this can help users avoid mistakes and can be simpler, faster and less expensive than hiring an attorney. However, unbundled legal services will probably not be sufficient in situations where users need comprehensive legal advice in addition to document preparation. (Find out what factors to consider before hiring an attorney, in How To Pick The Right Lawyer.)
- Legal Hotlines
Many states have legal hotlines to provide assistance with certain problems or to certain groups. The California Senior Legal Hotline provides assistance to Californians of all income levels who are at least 60 years old, and to grandparents of all ages. Similarly, the Legal Hotline for Texans assists state residents who are on Medicare, or are at least 60. An additional limitation of legal hotlines is that they may be underfunded or understaffed, so callers may not be able to speak to someone as soon as they'd like.
What Not to Do
State bar associations have strict rules about who is allowed to practice law and who is not. Because attorneys are licensed professionals, it is illegal for anyone who is not a bar member to give you legal advice - to do so would be considered an unauthorized practice of law.
Asking a friend or relative who is a lawyer to help you out for free is also a bad idea. Not only are you putting that person in an awkward position by asking him or her to do hundreds or potentially thousands of dollars of work without pay, you are also creating a situation that could ruin your relationship and leave you with no recourse if you receive bad advice (whereas if you had hired a lawyer, you could sue for malpractice).
You Get what You Pay for
As with anything else, when it comes to legal services, sometimes you get what you pay for. Shopping around for a less expensive attorney could be a better option than using a low-cost or free legal service. But sometimes, seeing a full-priced attorney means paying more than your situation warrants, or more than you can afford. Research all your options and decide which is best for you. (There are still options available to those being pursued by a creditor. Find out what they are, in Fighting Back Against Collection Lawsuits.)
Still feeling uninformed? Check out last week's business news highlights in Water Cooler Finance: Zombies File Taxes, Dead Bills Rise Again.