Can’t you just take my case on pro bono?

Posted on Sep 16, 2020 by Katie Carter

Family law is hard. I know you know, if you’re facing a family law case. And you can bet your boots I know, because it’s what I do day in and day out.


Divorce and custody cases are hard, both for the people going through it — and also for the lawyers involved!

I understand the love a parent has for a child, having two of my own. I understand the degree to which a loss (like a divorce) affects the financial future of a family. In fact, most therapists find divorce to be akin to a death in terms of the trauma inflicted on the people involved.

Because of the nature of my work, it is very stressful. I find it hard, when I come home in the evenings, to disconnect my brain from the difficulty and tragedy involved. I’ve worked on some cases that were real doozies, but even the more run of the mill cases (and I hate to call them that, because to the people involved they’re anything but) take a lot of emotional energy.

I try to make light. I try to be cheery and optimistic. Really, it’s the kind of person that I am. But there’s no denying that these cases are difficult. Sometimes, they take a long time. Sometimes, really awful things happen that I couldn’t have predicted.

We get calls all the time from people looking for this kind of help. And, on top of the regular calls to the office, I get calls, texts, Facebook messages and more from my friends, too — the ones who know what I do for a living. It’s even harder when it’s someone you know, but, as a general rule, I don’t take cases for people that I know anyway. Just like a doctor doesn’t want to cut on a family member, I don’t like to muddy the line between friends (or even acquaintances) and clients.

I don’t want to be churlish, but, at some point, there has to be a line.

For that reason, I (and we, as a firm) do not take on entire cases pro bono. We just don’t.

That’s a hard thing to say, when someone is telling you that their life is in shambles and they need help that you can (theoretically, at least) provide. That they’re worried for their kids. That they’re worried for their safety. That they don’t know how long they have to go before they’re homeless or their car is repossessed or something else terrible happens.

There ARE low cost (and free) ways to get the divorce and custody information you need, though!

That’s not to say that we don’t do volunteer work for the purpose of ensuring that Virginia women get the divorce and custody related information they need — we do! We write books and reports, which are published by us and furnished to you at no cost, if you need them. We speak at a number of seminars on divorce and custody, so that you can learn all about the legal processes, where to go for help, and even how to represent yourself.

If you can’t afford help, you should definitely take advantage of our free resources. Attend a seminar — you can ask questions there, too, directly to one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys. Read a book. We have books and reports touching on virtually all the topics that the majority of our clients face.  Really, just check out our library for some really comprehensive (and FREE) information.

Maybe you can find someone else — some new lawyer who is just starting out, maybe — who is willing to do pro bono.  It’s possible!

If you still need help, feel free to call around to other local area law firms. I don’t mean to be defeatist; it’s entirely possible that you could find someone (maybe a new attorney starting out?) who would be willing to take on a case pro bono. It’s probably unlikely, for many of the reasons I’ve enumerated, but it’s possible — after all, we are ethically encouraged to do pro bono service (although, like I’ve explained, that doesn’t have to take the form of representing someone for an entire case for free; in fact, that rarely happens).

Where else can you go look for help, if you can’t afford an attorney?

1. Legal Aid — obviously!

Legal Aid is the first place I’d go. Though they’re limited, too — these cases can be difficult and take a long time, and their funding is limited. One attorney can only handle so many cases, after all, and they only get the money that they get, and no more.

In my experience, Legal Aid attorneys help mostly with uncontested cases. They can help more people, and their funding stretches further. For people with contested cases, they generally give guidance, or meet to counsel them about their options. They often don’t take the entire case on.

2. Law School Clinics.

A lot of law schools — mine included! — have clinics where law students take on cases pro bono. It’s a good place to try, anyway, if you live near a law school.

3. Do it Yourself!

In Virginia, you can represent yourself. Especially if your case is in juvenile court, it’s automatically appealable to the circuit court — so it’s often not a bad idea to at least try and, if it goes badly, tackle it with an attorney latter. You’ll have saved the money from the lower court and given it a shot, but still retain the ability to hire an attorney for the later work if necessary.

I know, I know — it’s not the answer you hoped. And you’re scared and overwhelmed. And I’m so, so sorry! I know how awful it is. Believe me, I do.

But no one of us can take on all the cases, even the terrible ones. And we do try to do what we can to make sure you have the information you need, and it’s not a minimal investment of our time! We spend a lot of time helping Virginia women get divorce and custody related information. It’s not the same as pro bono for an entire case, but, this way, we’re able to help more people.

We also have to keep balance. For our own sake, for the sake of our families, and for the sake of our paying clients. It’s hard to say, especially when someone sits in front of us and cries. We don’t let those people leave empty handed — whether we send them away with a recommendation, hand them a book, or just invite them to Girl’s Night Out, we try to make sure they have as many tools as possible to get the help they need.

I hope you find it, too.