First off, let me start by saying that if I could afford to represent people and not charge them, I would. I love my job. I love helping people and I would gladly do it for free. However, I have also learned the hard way that I can only take on charity cases when my bills are paid and I have extra time. Unfortunately, those two circumstances rarely occur simultaneously.
Okay, so how does someone on a tight budget navigate through the legal arena? There are a few different options that I am going to discuss in more detail below.
When someone is representing him or herself concerning a legal issue that person is said to be proceeding pro se, which is simply a Latin phrase meaning “on one’s own behalf.” There are some legal issues that are not overly complex and can be efficiently handled by someone who is not a lawyer; however, let me warn you, this does not mean that you should think of your smartest friend and ask them to represent you with your divorce… because that would be practicing law without a license which is illegal. Pro se means that you can represent yourself- it does not mean that you can have anyone you pick represent you.
When you are deciding whether or not you want to represent yourself you should consider the following factors:
- Are you comfortable with paperwork?
If the answer to this question is “No” than you should NOT represent yourself.
- Are you good with meeting deadlines?
If the answer to this question is “No” than you should not represent yourself.
- Will anyone be opposing you on this legal issue?
If the answer to this question is “Yes” than you may not want to represent yourself.
- If so, will the opposing party be represented by a lawyer?
If the answer to this question is “Yes” than you may not want to represent yourself.
If you are comfortable with paperwork and good at meeting deadlines you are a good candidate to be able to successfully represent yourself in court, especially if no one is opposing you. For instance, it is completely possible to file your own no-fault divorce if your spouse also wants to get divorced and if you do not have any assets that need to be divided. In this instance, both parties would proceed pro se and the paperwork and procedure should be fairly cut and dry. Certain counties, including Lehigh County, even offer step-by-step instructions on their website. (Check it out here http://www.lccpa.org/selfhelp/divorce.)
However, even if you are good with both paperwork and deadlines, if you suspect that the other party will be fighting against you on your legal issue than self-representation becomes much more difficult. If the opposing party hires an attorney, it puts you at a disadvantage to proceed pro se (of course you can do it anyway, but be aware that you will then be dealing directly with this attorney who will, in all likelihood, want you to make a mistake). I strongly caution you against believing anything that an opposing attorney tells you- not because they are evil people, but simply because there is a conflict of interest. To illustrate the conflict of interest, let’s consider what would happen if your spouse’s attorney gave you good advice on dividing your marital assets. This would mean that your spouse, their client, would be getting less… which no attorney would do.
It takes about seven years of college (4 years undergrad and 3 years of law school) to become an attorney. It is a highly specialized set of skills and I would not recommend anyone proceeding pro se against a party who has hired an attorney. In fact, even attorneys who have run-ins with the law, typically hire an attorney to represent them! There is a quote that goes something like this… “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Now if someone is opposing you on a legal issue, but they are also proceeding pro se, than you will have a far better chance of moving forward successfully with self-representation. And I must admit that I have seen the infrequent but inspiring case of someone who has successfully represented themself against a party who had hired an attorney- but these stories are the rare exception.
Find a Private Attorney to Represent you Pro Bono
Pro Bono is another Latin phrase, shortened from pro bono publico, meaning “for the public good”. But, what it means to most is “free of charge”. There are many attorneys who pride themselves in performing pro bono work for their community. There is no harm in trying to locate one to take on your case. However, your odds of being successful in this endeavor are not good and here is why… because, when I do have enough money to pay my bills and extra time to donate to helping others, 99% of the time those “others” are my friends, family, or nonprofit organizations with which I am involved. I think that most lawyers are like me in this aspect… we all do countless hours of pro bono work, but hardly any of it is for the stranger that called one of our ads.
But, maybe you will be lucky and find someone who really is sympathetic to your cause or who is looking to get more experience in a certain field. You never know until you ask and nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Consult a Legal Aid Office
Some counties have legal aid offices and they may be able to offer you help. To find out more information about what legal services may be available in your county you should contact your local bar association.
North Penn Legal Services is an amazing resource for many people in our region who cannot afford to hire legal representation. More information about North Penn Legal Services can be found at http://northpennlegal.org. However, please be aware that NPLS does not offer help in criminal, personal injury, or traffic court issues. If you have a criminal law issue you should consider contacting your local public defender’s office.
Hire a Private Attorney who Will Work within Your Budget
If none of the above-mentioned options are right for you, it may be time to consider finding a private attorney who can work with you on payments. Typically attorneys charge clients in one of three ways- hourly, flat fee, or contingency fee.
An attorney who charges hourly will typically charge anywhere from $100-$400 per hour depending on their experience, the cost of living in the area, and the demand for their services. When attorneys charge an hourly rate they typically request a retainer fee upfront. A retainer fee is basically when a client prepays for their legal services. Retainer fee payments are put into a special trust account and, in Pennsylvania, the interest that these trust accounts generate is pooled together and used to support legal aid programs. As the attorney works on a case they transfer money from the trust account into their business account because, at that point it is considered to have been earned. If a retainer that a client provides gets low the client will be asked to add more funds to the account. When their case is completed, any remaining funds will be returned to the client.
Some attorneys offer flat fee payments. This means that a client will pay one lump sum up front for a specific legal service and will not be charged hourly. A flat fee agreement usually ends up being a good deal for a client because they know at the outset all of the costs and fees involved; this knowledge allows them the comfort of communicating with their attorney at will, without the fear that each minute on the phone is going to be added to their bill.
While a flat fee agreement can be a good choice, it is often only offered for specific legal needs such as the drafting of a will, or representation at a specific conference or hearing. Flat fees are rarely offered in situations where it cannot be easily estimated how long the legal needs of the client will continue.
A contingency fee agreement is where an attorney will represent you for free, and only get paid when and if they recover money for you. You will often see personal injury cases, or disability claims handled on a contingency fee basis. However, there are certain types of cases where attorneys are specifically not allowed to offer their services for a contingency fee, such as criminal cases or family law issues.
Now that you have some information about different payment methods used by attorneys, you should be able to feel comfortable discussing your options with a prospective lawyer during your consultation. I always encourage any prospective clients who are on a tight budget to shop around when it comes to choosing an attorney. Go meet with different lawyers who offer free consultations and during those meetings talk with them about how they handle their billing. If they charge hourly, ask them what their rate is and compare it to other attorneys practicing in your county. Find out how much of a retainer fee they may need up front. If you don’t feel comfortable asking an attorney these questions, they are probably not the right attorney for you. The right attorney will make communication easy.
Even though I love what I do, and I enjoy helping others, the reality of the situation is that I have to charge a fee. I always offer free, no pressure, consultations and my hourly rate is much lower than most attorneys practicing in the area. Additionally, I am one of the very few attorneys who will set clients up on personalized payment plans. I hate the idea of turning someone away because of financial reasons and I will do everything in my power to try to work out a payment plan, or method, that they can afford.
Too many people question the existence of an attorney who is both good at what they do and affordable; these skeptics are right to be wary. We have all heard the saying, “you get what you pay for” and most of the time that is true. However, I pride myself in being that attorney; the one who is both good and affordable. Please call me today at (484) 560-7457 to set up a time for your free, no pressure, consultation.
Be happy. -Angel