Usually when you hire an attorney, it’s to avoid being soaked financially by an ex-spouse, former business partner or adversary who wants to sue you for all you have. But just as it takes money to make money, sometimes you have to spend money to save your money. But what do you do when you need a lawyer to protect your assets and know that paying for one is out of the question?
In a criminal proceeding, if you can’t afford legal assistance, a court will appoint an attorney for you. In a civil case, generally described as a dispute between two private parties, you have to get creative. Here are some of your options:
Look to legal aid societies. Legal aid societies are nonprofit organizations found in almost every corner of the country that provide free legal services to low-income people. This is certainly worth exploring, but the problem for many households is that the individual or couple makes too much money to qualify for help.
Even if you have a low income, it doesn’t guarantee assistance through a legal aid society. In fact, according to a 2009 study by the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit established by Congress to ensure equal access to justice for all Americans, for every person who gets help through an LSC-funded program, another is turned away.
You can find more ideas at lawhelp.org, a nonprofit aimed at connecting people with low and moderate incomes to legal help.
Visit a law school. You could also consider hiring an up-and-coming law student to give you advice.
“Generally, students in law school clinics are certified to practice law under a faculty member who is a practicing attorney,” says Martha Mannix, a clinical associate professor and director of clinical programs at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
She adds that student practice rules vary by state, so what you can actually do depends on where you live. Many law schools clinics represent low-income individuals too, and so once again, you may make too much money to qualify. But maybe not.
“For example, at Pitt Law, we have a taxpayer clinic that is funded by the IRS,” Mannix says. “This allows us to help folks within 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines in certain tax controversy matters.”
Contact your county or state bar association. Mannix suggests giving this a shot. Once you find someone who will listen to you, ask if there are any ongoing projects for pro bono legal help or reduced-fee help, she suggests.
“That will differ from state to state and county by county. Much of this depends on how active the state and local bar is in reaching out to these kinds of clients,” Mannix says.
Go to small claims court. Unfortunately, this won’t be an option for you in many cases. For instance, you can’t go to small claims court if you’re trying to work out your financial affairs after a divorce. But if the stakes are fairly low – someone owes you money or is trying to collect money from you, and it isn’t worth risking lawyer fees – you might consider small claims court.
Your home state will dictate how high the stakes are. For instance, in Delaware, the most you will be awarded or lose is $15,000. In Arizona, the amount is $3,000.
Try pricing attorneys. You may find that the fees aren’t as high as you fear, especially if you can get them capped. An attorney might give you a discount. You could hit the jackpot and find a lawyer willing to work pro bono, or you might find someone willing to take your case on contingency. That is, if you lose your case, you won’t pay money, but if you win, the law firm will take a portion of the money awarded to you.
But be careful. You want to choose a reputable attorney and make sure the rate is agreed upon before the lawyer takes your case. And don’t be too shocked if an attorney turns you down. It’s risky for lawyers to take cases on contingency, and they need to be pretty sure a judge or jury will side with you, and that there’s going to be something sizable awarded to you.
Still, it’s worth talking to some attorneys. Some lawyers offer the first introductory meeting for free; if you can’t afford their services, they may direct you to someone who can help.
Represent yourself in court. No legal expert will suggest you do this, so please keep that in mind.
“You can do yourself significant harm by representing yourself. Lawyers have an expertise in the law and court procedure that laypeople and the public [do] not,” Mannix says.
And there is that proverb – probably invented by a lawyer – to consider: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”
Yet some people do represent themselves – even successfully. Fred Coon, CEO of Stewart, Cooper & Coon, an executive recruiting firm in Phoenix, says when he was in his mid-20s, he and his wife decided to seek a no-contest divorce. Coon couldn’t afford lawyer fees, so he went to the library of his graduate school and studied up on divorce law (this was pre-Internet). He also went to the courthouse and listened to several divorce proceedings.
Coon went to court, and when everyone learned he was representing himself, he heard the scornful laughter. But he showed the judge his paperwork, and after several minutes, the judge looked at the lawyers near the front of the courtroom and said: “Boys, if your paperwork were half as good as his, I’d be here a lot less hours every day.”
Coon got through his divorce proceedings without losing his shirt. Meanwhile, Bert Martinez, a revenue and marketing strategist also based in Phoenix, once also represented himself in court. His problems started after sending a junk-fax spammer a cease and desist letter.
That letter apparently ticked off the spammer, which escalated into a lawsuit. According to Martinez, the spammer’s company claimed the letter had to be researched by its law firm, which set the company back thousands of dollars. Martinez found himself in court, defending himself against two attorneys in court proceedings.
Before his court date, he, too, studied courtroom theater. He suggests sitting in court every day, for a week, maybe 10 days.
“Introduce yourself to the clerk of that courtroom,” he advises. “Explain why you’re there – to observe and become familiar with how this courtroom operates.”
By visiting the courtroom, Martinez says, you can see what kind of judge you’ll likely be working with, and you’ll become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the courtroom, which will make things less intimidating later.
You have to be prepared, Martinez says, because, “you’ll be held to attorneys’ standards.”
Like Coon, Martinez prevailed. Of course, many people don’t have the time to take off work and visit a courtroom for five to 10 business days, or to study up on law for hours and hours. After all, spending time preparing for a court case can mean losing wages or part of a salary.
So if you don’t have the time to self-educate, really what you should do is hire a lawyer. Sigh – and now we’re back to square one.