I Have No Money, How Can I Hire an Attorney?


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Frequently, the people who need an attorney the most are also the ones who can least afford to pay for one. Whether accused of a crime, injured in an accident, or facing the possibility of losing your children, there are many situations where the stakes are so high that you might desperately need an attorney even though you have no way to pay. So, how do you hire an attorney when you have no money?

Court Appointed Attorneys

In some situations, attorneys may be provided to you. These are generally in cases where the stakes are quite high -- so high that the Supreme Court found that you have a constitutional right to an attorney. The most common situation for court-appointed legal counsel has always been criminal cases. Anyone who has watched a TV show or movie featuring law enforcement of any kind probably recognizes the famous Miranda Warning:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.

This right to an attorney, even if you cannot afford one, grew out of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and was cemented in the law by the case of Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). In that case, a poor defendant was unable to obtain legal counsel and thus, grossly outmatched in court by the State Attorney. On appeal from his conviction, the Supreme Court held that the right of an indigent (i.e., poor) defendant in a criminal case to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial. Thus, the conviction was overturned and the right to legal counsel in a criminal case was finally and firmly established.

If arrested, a criminal defendant must be advised of their right to legal counsel. An attorney is typically appointed at the first hearing the defendant attends (usually a first appearance that occurs within 24 hours of arrest). Most commonly, the defendant receives the services of a Public Defender, an attorney paid by the state to represent clients with no means of representing themselves. These are overworked and underpaid civil servants that often receive an unfair reputation as being less skilled or less concerned than a private attorney. In reality, most Public Defenders do everything they can with the budget and time they have to put on the best possible case for their clients.

If one has an issue with the attorney appointed to them, however, even the poor have the right to both effective representation and counsel of their choice. Thus, when someone has a conflict with the Public Defender's office, so-called “conflict attorneys” may be appointed by the court. These are usually private attorneys that have volunteered to assist the court in these situations. Rules for obtaining conflict attorneys vary by jurisdiction, so ask an attorney or your local bar association for information about these programs if you believe this may be something you would like to pursue.

Child Dependency Cases

Another area where many jurisdictions have now opted to provide state-funded attorneys is in the matter of a child dependency case. Notably, it is generally the exception rather than the rule that one should have a right to counsel in a civil case, such as a dependency matter. But, given the gravity of the situation when one faces losing the right to their children, many courts have created a right to counsel in these situations.

Each jurisdiction will probably have a slightly different means of appointing the attorney, though it will likely be done by a judge at the earliest possible time in one's case. Some states may do it automatically while others may require the interested party to ask the court to make the appointment. The attorney appointed will most likely be a state employee, possibly even working in the public defender's office, though many states have used volunteers similar to the “conflict attorneys” described above to fill this need.

Accidents / Injuries / Contingency Fee Cases

There is another way to get legal counsel without significant up-front expenses. This is the “contingency fee” arrangement, whereby one's payment to their attorney is contingent upon that lawyer getting some form of recovery for the client. Generally, the client pays either nothing out-of-pocket, or only some of the costs of the case (like filing and service fees). At the conclusion of the case, if the attorney loses, the client pays nothing, but if the attorney recovers any money for the client, then the attorney takes his or her fees as a percentage of the award.

This makes it possible for clients without the means of paying an attorney's hourly rates to obtain legal representation, and creates an incentive for the attorney to obtain a fast and rewarding outcome in the case so that he or she can get paid, as well. Most commonly, this fee structure is only available to clients in cases with large potential payouts and relatively short timelines that make the attorney's eventual reward worth the risk of taking on the case. Thus, personal injury, auto accident, product liability, medical malpractice, and similar cases can often be handled by attorneys on contingency fee bases. On the other hand, business and contract disputes, construction litigation, administrative hearings, divorces, bankruptcies, criminal cases, and similar litigation will likely not be eligible for contingency fee representation.

Pro Bono Representation

Finally, some attorneys are willing to volunteer their time to help people in need. This is called “pro bono” representation (which simply means “free” in Latin). Many cities and counties have pro bono legal clinics that offer free legal advice and help filling out forms. For actual representation in a court proceeding, you may be able to find a legal aid society near you. Attorneys working with legal aid are either employees (paid by a charitable organization) or volunteers that will take on qualifying cases and represent you in court or other proceedings. You usually have to meet income requirements and the case must meet certain criteria, such as being reasonably likely to succeed and highly meritorious. In some cases, the legal aid society may ask that it be allowed to recover attorney fees from the other side should you prevail in the case. Unfortunately, since you have paid nothing, this will not go back into your pocket, but it could help pay for the next person who needs free legal representation.

In other cases, private attorneys will sometimes volunteer to represent someone. In these situations, it is truly an act of charity since the attorney will likely never see any payment for his or her services. Nevertheless, many attorneys feel that giving back to the community is an essential part of their professional obligation, and thus, it is possible to get the assistance of a very competent attorney at absolutely no charge. Very large law firms are often best known for such services, and make a practice of requiring their member attorneys to volunteer a certain amount of time each month to helping the less fortunate.

To Find a Lawyer Near You

If you want to find an attorney in your area that might be able to help you with your case, visit HG.org and use the attorney search feature. You can search by practice area and location to find someone that can help you with your particular matter right where you live. When you call them, be sure to ask if they handle cases on a contingency fee basis, if they ever take on any pro bono representation, or if they can help you find more information about someone who might be able to assist you. You can also contact local bar associations, pro bono clinics, legal aid societies, and even law libraries to get more information about free and reduced rate legal representation in your area.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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