It’s not exactly news that lawyers can be expensive. The average hourly rate for a lawyer in America is $284 and even attorneys that charge less can be too costly for some.

If you’re one of these people, you don’t have to worry. There are services available for people who can’t afford legal representation. Keep in mind that these services vary not only state to state but city to city and town to town. What follows will help get you started on your search, but your experience could be markedly different from that of your friends or family, depending on their legal matter or location.

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If you’re unable to afford a lawyer, you should start by looking into Legal Aid.

Legal aid is an umbrella term for any service which provides legal assistance to those unable to afford it otherwise. These services vary significantly based on location, but all should provide pro bono -- a Latin term meaning “for the public good” -- services. Pro bono services are free and are generally considered important to ensuring equality before the law and a right to a fair trial.

There are many organizations which provide legal aid and thus, many places to begin your search. Search for legal aid services in your area and contact them. They’ll decide if you’re eligible and help you out. After all, that’s what they’re there for.

There are a variety of legal aid models out there. Here are some of the most common arrangements:

Legal clinics:
These clinics generally take civil -- as opposed to criminal -- cases. They will often have income and resource restrictions which make certain that those who can afford a lawyer do not abuse clinics out of stinginess. Clinics are often funded by the Legal Services Corporations (LSC), which was created by Congress in 1974 in the interest of making legal care available to more people and may either have counsel working for them which help those in needs or can place people with firms or pro bono attorneys who have registered with the clinic.

Law firms: Some firms exist solely to provide legal aid. These firms are funded either by grants, the LSC, or private donations. Legal clinics often know these firms and their specialties and will send interested clients to the firms themselves for consultations.

Pro bono attorneys: In addition to clinics and law firms which specialize in legal aid, individual lawyers of all stripes will often represent clients free of charge. A pro bono attorney donates his or her time and experience to aid a client who traditionally cannot afford it.

You may not be aware of this, but the American Bar Association (ABA), recommends all lawyers in the United States donate fifty hours of pro bono service a year. Some lawyers do more, of course, while others do less. Some state or city bar associations actually require attorneys to donate time over the course of a year.

Sometimes, this information will be available at legal aid clinics. Sometimes, you may have to ask a lawyer themselves.

Lastly, you should be aware that many lawyers will take a civil case on contingency. This means that you will not actually pay the lawyer but that he or she will take a percentage of your settlements or civil judgements. Many civil cases -- especially on the plaintiff’s side -- are tried in this manner. If you believe you might be eligible, carefully select a lawyer and ask if your case qualifies to be tried on contingency. In this way, you will also be getting “free” legal representation, though, as mentioned, the attorney will take a portion of your judgments. Make sure you negotiate this rate before the lawyer takes your case.

Get started Ask a Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one day.

Get started Ask a Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one day.