2020 Best Invention

What is Legal Aid and Why Does it Exist

3 minute read Upsolve is a nonprofit tool that helps you file bankruptcy for free. Think TurboTax for bankruptcy. Get free education, customer support, and community. Featured in Forbes 4x and funded by institutions like Harvard University so we'll never ask you for a credit card. Explore our free tool

In a Nutshell

Legal aid and pro bono attorneys can help you get through your bankruptcy filing. Find out how they work and why they exist.

Written by Kristin Turner, Harvard Law Grad
Updated November 29, 2021

If you’re filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, there's a good chance that you can't afford an attorney to help you through the process. Attorneys are a great investment for people who can afford them, as they’re constantly available to answer questions and it's usually pretty easy to find an attorney who can take your case right away if you’re willing to pay them for it.

Unfortunately, many Americans who are filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy cannot afford attorneys due to their minimal or nonexistent income and/or their high debt. In the words of one debtor, “If I could afford an attorney, I wouldn’t be filing for bankruptcy in the first place.”

Fortunately, most cities in the United States have nonprofits that are able to provide free legal help to Americans below a certain income level. We know it may sound too good to be true: a free lawyer to help you solve your legal problem. Thanks to the government, philanthropic foundations, bar associations, and wealthy individuals, these nonprofits, called legal aid organizations, provide free help to low-income Americans.

Sometimes legal aid organizations have waiting lists, but sometimes they don't. If you’re wondering whether your local legal aid organization will take your case, the best thing you can do is give them a call and ask. You may be put on hold or need to give them a couple of calls, but the time you put into figuring out if you qualify may save you thousands of dollars.

How Do I Know if I Qualify

If you think you may qualify for free legal aid help, you should call your local legal aid organization rather than guess whether you qualify for free help or not. Most legal aid organizations help people who are either below 200% of the poverty line or below 125% of the poverty line.

As of October 2020, 200% of the poverty line is an annual salary of $52,400 a year for someone with a family of four and $25,520 for an individual. In October, 125% of the poverty line was $32,750 for a family of four and $15,950 for an individual.

If you earn below $52,400 and you have four people in your family, or if you earn below $15,950 and you’re on your own, it’s almost guaranteed that your income level qualifies you for a free legal aid attorney to help you on your bankruptcy, as long as you meet the other requirements. These requirements may be that you are a United States citizen, do not own over a certain amount of assets, or live in the city where a legal aid organization is located.

Upsolve has a legal aid locator tool to help you find legal aid organizations in your state that provide free bankruptcy assistance. Feel free to call the legal aid organizations in your area during normal business hours to see if you qualify for their help.

Upsolve User Experiences

2,141+ Members Online
Resa D
Resa D
★★★★★ 7 hours ago
I am extremely appreciative of this free service through Upsolve, it was very straight-forward and easy to follow for the most part. It is a very tedious process though, and I can understand why attorneys charge so much. I filed my paperwork today, and am feeling positive that things will turn out fine! Thanks Upsolve, you are a wonderful organization for people in need of a helping hand, stay awesome!!
Read more Google reviews ⇾
bryant graham
Bryant Graham
★★★★ 9 days ago
Upsolve was very helpful i highly recommend there service.
Read more Google reviews ⇾
Keith Vincent
Keith Vincent
★★★★★ 9 days ago
Upsolve provides a invaluable service at no cost. The clerk of court told me all of my paperwork was in order. It was done by myself with the assistance of Upsolve staff. Great Service for the people of this country. Thank you Upsolve.
Read more Google reviews ⇾

Legal aid organizations are similar to for-profit law firms in the way they provide help to their clients. Indeed, lawyers are bound by ethical obligations to treat clients that pay fees in the same way they treat clients that do not. If you call a legal aid organization, you can expect a phone operator or paralegal to first ask questions to determine whether you qualify for their free assistance. It's important not to lie during these questions. If you understate your income, the lawyer with whom you work will find out through your tax returns and pay stubs. You’ll just waste your time trying to get help from someone who can't provide it.

After the legal aid organization screens you to see if you qualify for their help, they’ll ask questions to see if you’re a good fit for bankruptcy. Some legal aid organizations will only help you if you have a job or have assets that creditors may seize. Some organizations have no such rules. Again, there is no way for you to know without calling your local legal aid organization to find out.

Once a legal aid organization determines that you qualify for its help and look like a good fit for bankruptcy, it will ask you to provide more information. Different legal aid organizations collect this information in different ways.

Sometimes that means coming into their office for an interview. Sometimes it'll mean filling out a paper or online questionnaire. As you complete this questionnaire, it's important, once again, to be totally honest. The information you provide will go onto your bankruptcy forms that are submitted to the court.

After your forms are complete, you’ll meet with your free attorney to review them. If your legal aid organization provides help in a limited assistance capacity, then you’ll be responsible for filing the actual bankruptcy forms on your own and showing up by yourself to the 341 meeting.

During this meeting, the bankruptcy trustee will ask you questions about your financial life, and you’ll answer them. Most 341 meetings last less than ten minutes and are just between the debtor and the trustee. If your legal aid organization provides full representation, then your attorney will file your forms for you and show up with you at your 341 meeting.

As laws became more complex and it became clear that ordinary Americans would have a hard time navigating the legal system on their own without any sort of legal representation. As a result, philanthropists, and eventually government agencies, started legal aid organizations to provide free help to low-income Americans who would not be able to solve their own legal problems.

Most legal aid organizations cater to a variety of legal problems that low-income Americans face. These include tenant-landlord issues, debt collection lawsuits, domestic abuse cases, etc. Not every legal aid organization does bankruptcy, but those that do not are generally able to provide referrals to those organizations that do help with bankruptcy.

Written By:

Kristin Turner, Harvard Law Grad


Kristin is a recipient of Harvard Law School’s Public Welfare Foundation A2J Tech Fellowship. At Harvard Law, she served as a member of the Harvard Defenders, the Women’s Law Association, and the Harvard Law Negotiation Review. She was the 2016 – 2017 president of the Harvard Bla... read more about Kristin Turner, Harvard Law Grad

It's easy to get help

Choose one of the options below to get assistance with your bankruptcy:

Free Web App

Take our screener to see if Upsolve is right for you.

Take Screener
11,426 families have filed with Upsolve! ☆

Private Attorney

Get a free bankruptcy evaluation from an independent law firm.

Find Attorney

Learning Center

Research and understand your options with our articles and guides.

Go to Learning Center →

Already an Upsolve user?

Read Support Articles →


    + Show Articles

    Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income families who cannot afford lawyers file bankruptcy for free, using an online web app. Our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have world-class funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and leading foundations. It's one of the greatest civil rights injustices of our time that low-income families can't access their basic rights when they can't afford to pay for help. Combining direct services and advocacy, we're fighting this injustice.

    To learn more, read why we started Upsolve in 2016, our reviews from past users, and our press coverage from places like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.