[ The Money Side of Life™ ]

Legal First Aid: Finding a low-cost lawyer

By Jennie Bartlemay on March 15th, 2010 •

Many situations could require the assistance of a lawyer. Purchasing a house, landlord/tenant disputes, starting a business, and workplace problems are just a few. Fortunately, not all lawyers cost an arm and a leg. There are options for different situations and income levels.

Finding help

One of the few legalese terms that most people have heard of is pro bono, commonly understood to mean “free lawyer.” It actually means “for the public good.” There are two things to know about pro bono council: First, there is no charge. Second, and more important, the case usually needs to have some significance to the public at large (social causes, charities, etc.) or peak a lawyer’s interest in some way. If you think you might have such a dispute, visit abanet.org/legalservices/probono and look for the local pro bono programs directory.

Even without the benefit of pro bono representation, there are options for getting low-cost legal help. Visit lawhelp.org to find free legal aid programs in your state for low- and moderate-income people. Some law schools have clinical programs that provide free or reduced-rate legal services. You can also google “legal aid” followed by your city or state to find local programs.

If you’re a university student, check with student services to see if your school offers free or low-cost legal help. This is a great resource for students because student legal services frequently handle common student issues like landlord disagreements, employment grievances or family-law matters.

If all else fails, you’ll need to find an attorney on your own. Go to lawyers.com or lawyers.findlaw.com to use their find-a-lawyer systems. Also ask friends, family or professional acquaintances for suggestions.

Footing the bill

As with any other service, it’s important to discuss the cost before making a deal.

  • Most lawyers quote a price before scheduling a consultation.
  • It’s okay to negotiate the fee and shop around.
  • A “retainer” fee is not the total fee, but an estimate of what they think it would cost to resolve the issue. The final bill may go over this amount.
  • If the required services are relatively simple, you might ask the attorney to agree to a maximum fee. In this case, you are not expected to pay more than a certain amount. Maximum fees aren’t appropriate if the case is more complex--making it impossible to determine a maximum fee--or if the lawyer is already working for a reduced fee.
The Bottom Line

Paying a lawyer for bankruptcy proceedings doesn’t have to cost more than the debt you owed in the first place. If the time should come when you need to hire a lawyer, whether you’re fighting a criminal charge or just drawing up a will, you can take comfort in knowing where to start.

Sources: expertlaw.com; umich.edu; ucla.edu; findlaw.com; law.com; lawsociety.org; ufl.edu