I Can’t Afford an Attorney. Can a Pro Bono Lawyer Help Me?
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Nonprofit legal agencies and some attorneys offer free or low-fee assistance under certain circumstances. Other attorneys offer guidance on a contingency basis. Free bankruptcy help can be found via the no-cost filing tool provided by Upsolve.
Written by Attorney Paige Hooper.
Updated November 19, 2021
The term pro bono (“bono” rhymes with “oh, no!”) comes from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which means “for the public good.” In modern English, pro bono usually means free legal services. Pro bono resources are available for a wide variety of legal matters, though they’re more common for certain types of cases. This article provides an overview of the types of cases most likely to qualify for free legal assistance, which lawyers do pro bono work, and how to find free bankruptcy help.
Who Provides Free Legal Services?
Some nonprofit organizations provide free legal services. These services are often limited to people with low incomes and are sometimes limited to residents of a certain state, city, or region. Most legal aid programs try to help as many people as possible. As a result, they usually don’t handle complex legal matters such as bankruptcies, divorces, foreclosures, or criminal cases. These matters require a lawyer to spend a lot of time working on just one case, leaving less time available to help other clients.
Instead, nonprofits that provide pro bono legal services typically stick to more straightforward civil cases, as well as urgent legal issues that frequently affect people with limited resources. Legal aid organizations commonly handle:
Consumer law matters, such as false advertising, scams, or unfair business practices
Domestic violence and protective orders
Public benefits issues, such as help applying for public benefits like welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, or health care
Some pro bono organizations have full-time lawyers on staff, while others rely on a rotating pool of attorneys who volunteer their time. Whether they work full time as a pro bono lawyer or volunteer occasionally, most lawyers do at least some pro bono work every year. Some volunteer with established nonprofits, while others do pro bono work out of their offices.
The Model Rules of Professional Conduct is a set of ethical rules for lawyers published by the American Bar Association (ABA). Rule 6.1 of these model rules says all lawyers should try to perform at least 50 hours of free legal services each year. Each state has a version of this rule. Most states say that lawyers should “try” to do a certain amount of pro bono work each year, but no state requires pro bono work for practicing attorneys. In New York, though, anyone who applies for state bar admission must do 50 hours of pro bono work as part of the application process.
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Pro Bono Work by Lawyers in Private Practice
Many states have volunteer lawyer programs to help consumers find pro bono resources and help attorneys comply with their states’ guidelines. Lawyers who offer free legal help through these volunteer programs often handle the same kinds of cases legal aid providers do.
Depending on a lawyer’s practice areas and expertise, they may also take on other kinds of cases that pro bono programs usually don’t. For example, a lawyer whose private practice involves mostly family law might choose to offer free divorces. Likewise, an attorney who mainly practices bankruptcy law might handle bankruptcy cases pro bono.
Volunteer attorneys generally don’t handle criminal matters. But the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney for people charged with most types of crimes. As a result, you can usually get a lawyer for free in these cases, either through the public defender’s office or a court-appointed attorney. To take advantage of these options, you’ll likely have to prove that you can’t afford to hire a lawyer on your own.
Pro bono attorneys also don’t typically take personal injury cases, such as car accidents or slip-and-fall cases. Still, you can usually get a lawyer for these kinds of cases without paying anything upfront. If you have a good case, most personal injury lawyers will represent you on a contingency basis. In a contingency case, you’ll agree to pay your lawyer a percentage of whatever amount you win in the case or a percentage of the settlement amount if you settle the case. If you don’t win, you won’t owe the lawyer any money.
Finding Free Legal Services for Bankruptcy Cases
Upsolve is a nationwide nonprofit devoted to helping people file for bankruptcy without breaking the bank. One of Upsolve’s key features is its free bankruptcy filing tool. This tool is based on the idea that most lower-income people should be able to file their own Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases, without needing to hire attorneys.
To illustrate this idea, consider tax returns. Each year, many people complete and file their taxes, without needing to hire accountants, by using simple online software. People with complex tax situations still need accountants to be sure that their rights are protected. But for people with simple tax scenarios, this software can save a lot of time and money.
Upsolve’s free filing tool is software that helps people with simple Chapter 7 cases complete and file their bankruptcy cases themselves. Most U.S. bankruptcies are Chapter 7 cases. Around 95% of those Chapter 7 cases are no-asset cases, meaning that the individual or couple who filed bankruptcy doesn’t have to give up or sell any of their belongings. Most Chapter 7 cases are completed within four months after they’re filed. Taken together, these facts show that most of the bankruptcy cases filed in the U.S. are simple Chapter 7 cases. 
What counts as a simple case? Upsolve’s screener tool can help you figure out if your situation is a good fit for the free filing software. For example, you probably won’t be able to use this tool if you own a home, have a pending personal injury case, or earn more than the median income for your state. If your case doesn’t qualify for the free filing tool, or if you’re not comfortable filing on your own, Upsolve can help you schedule a free consultation with an independent bankruptcy lawyer. During an attorney consultation, you can explore your options and ask questions in a risk-free setting.
If you have a legal problem and can’t afford to hire an attorney, you’re not alone. Nonprofit legal aid organizations can provide free legal representation for certain types of cases if you qualify for their services. Most lawyers in private practice also provide pro bono services, according to their state guidelines. You can also usually work with an attorney with no upfront costs if you have a personal injury case or are charged with a crime. If you’re considering bankruptcy, Upsolve can help you file your case yourself, or aid you in finding a bankruptcy lawyer who offers consultations for free.
- The American Bankruptcy Institute. (2021, February). Bankruptcy Filing Trends in the United States. The American Bankruptcy Institute. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://abi-org.s3.amazonaws.com/Newsroom/State_Filing_Trends/2020_TRENDS_NATIONAL.pdf
- (n.d.). CHAPTER 7 ASSET CASES CLOSED. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ust/file/ch7cy2019.pdf/download
- U.S. Bankruptcy Courts. (n.d.). Interval from Filing to Disposition in Nonbusiness Bankruptcy Cases of Individual Debtors. Retrieved from https://www.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/data_tables/bapcpa_3_1231.2019.pdf