I have a terrible family law case, and I need pro bono help!

Posted on Oct 28, 2022 by Katie Carter

Facing a complicated legal issue is really scary, especially when you’ve started to do the research and you realize that it’s looking worse than you maybe even expected. Then, you check your bank account balance and, well, it looks even worse.

We’ve talked before about how lawyers, or at least family lawyers, typically work on retainers. That’s an amount of money that we charge up front in order to take a case. You sign a retainer agreement, pay the retainer fee, and, at that point, “a” lawyer becomes “YOUR” lawyer, and they’re obligated to act on your behalf. The retainer fee isn’t spent money, though. It’s money that goes into a trust, or escrow, account with your name on it. The money stays there, and the lawyer can’t touch it, unless and until she does work to earn it.

Most lawyers bill monthly, and on the bill, you’ll see the time expended on your case. You’ll see it broken up into increments of a tenth of an hour. (Yes, we really do use a stopwatch – usually, an app on our phone, our computer, or our timekeeping program to make sure that we get these numbers absolutely correct.) We bill according to an hourly rate that is determined by the firm that you’re hiring, and set forth in the retainer agreement that you signed.

I said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to gauging costs, the best way to compare one attorney versus another is by the hourly rate. But, of course, a higher hourly rate comes with more experience. Hey, at some point we all have to decide between a Kia and a Tesla. Right?
It’s not a flat fee, though. Not in family law, anyway. Some attorneys work on flat fees. Bankruptcy and immigration come to mind, for example. Some attorneys work on contingent fees, which mean they don’t get paid until they ‘win’ your case. (I’m looking at you, personal injury attorneys!)

We do get a lot of people asking about contingent fees, because it is appealing not to have to pay the attorney up front. But, under our ethical rules, family law attorneys aren’t allowed to take cases on a contingent fee. So, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. Besides, ultimately, you wouldn’t really want that to happen, anyway. Most of the time, a personal injury attorney takes a certain percentage of the settlement. In a divorce, we divide everything that you earned, purchased, or acquired during your marriage, and even do things like award spousal support or child support. We couldn’t take 30-50% of that number, it’s just not feasible. So, anyway, long story short, a contingent fee is not a thing in a family law case.

So, it’s not a flat fee. When the money – your retainer – runs out, you have to replenish your trust account. It’s not a blank check, but, as a client, it might feel like one. Ultimately, it can be very difficult to guesstimate how much a case will cost, since the issues can vary dramatically from one case to another. The differences between the people involved – like, how difficult your husband is, or how difficult the attorney he hires is – also matter, too.

How much does it cost? There’s a range. A huge range, too, especially if your case is litigated. Most cases are ultimately settled, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some litigation at first. So, cases can run the gamut between costing just a few thousand and costing way, way more – like 80,000+, per side. (Meaning that both the husband and the wife could, potentially, BOTH have attorney’s fees that high.) I’ve seen a case where the total overall costs topped $400k. It was just one case, and it’s very rare, and if you knew the people involved, you’d totally understand why, but, still – it can get crazy.

In most cases, it’s not crazy, though. Even if it seems that way at first.

I don’t want to hear about how family law attorneys bill their clients. Can I get pro bono representation?

I don’t want to go on much longer without giving you a straight answer. No, in general, you cannot get pro bono representation.

Though attorneys do sometimes do work pro bono, it is very, very rare that an attorney would find a stranger off the street with a very sad story and a very complicated legal matter that they’d just scoop up and take. For one thing, these cases can take years and years. They can cost a fortune, both in time and in stress – and not just the CLIENT’S time and stress, either. Hey, in case you didn’t already know, I’m here to tell you that, as a lawyer, the work we do is hard, draining, and stressful. We have a lot of sleepless nights over our clients!

But I thought lawyers HAD to do pro bono work.

We are encouraged to do pro bono work, but we’re not required. Even still, though, no one is requiring that we take strangers off the street and do their entire case for them from beginning to end.

Even Legal Aid only really takes uncontested cases – you know, the easy ones. A big part of that is that the investment in time and resources in the contested cases is just so great that, if they were to take those cases on, they could help far, far fewer people.

With a complicated case, you’re less likely to find a pro bono attorney to help you from beginning to end for free. In any case, it’s probably a long shot, but that is especially true if you’ve got a crazy complicated case with a million different issues and no common ground.

For attorneys, pro bono can mean a lot of things. It can mean taking a case from beginning to end, but, honestly, that’s rare. And, any time I’ve offered or asked my boss if I can do it, it’s been to help a friend, not to do something for someone I don’t know. I’m sorry. I know that’s probably not something you want to hear, especially if you don’t have any close friends who are also family law attorneys (and, even if you do, they may not be willing or able to take your case from beginning to end for you). I can’t tell you how often I get DMs asking about the cases my friends – or friends of friends, or people I’m barely even acquainted with – are going through.

For most of us – me included – pro bono work doesn’t take the shape that you might imagine. For me, it’s donating my time to our monthly divorce seminar. I’m not paid for that time – not that you care whether or how I’m paid, if you’re asking me to do pro bono work, but it’s still a fact – and it’s time spent educating the public about family law, so it counts.

Sometimes, attorneys take a small part of a case, and just do that. It helps the client, and it keeps the engagement limited, so that it’s not something that goes on for years and years and costs a ton of money (and time and blood pressure points). In Virginia Beach Juvenile, for example, there’s a CLASS program (which stands for Concerned Lawyers Advocating Spousal Safety), where attorneys volunteer their time to help domestic violence victims obtain permanent protective orders. The attorney appears on behalf of a client – usually one they met that morning and spent a few moments with before the hearing, if any time at all – for the limited purpose of providing representation at that one hearing and getting them a protective order, if the facts support it. That’s it. That’s pro bono work.

While I can completely understand wanting to secure pro bono representation, and also that you feel concerned that you really can’t afford ongoing legal representation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a lawyer out there who could or would take your case on for free. Most clients, in my experience, don’t realize what a big ask it is. While you’re fine to ask – we get asked all the time – don’t be surprised if the answer is a polite no.

Pro bono representation is one of the bigger myths attached to the legal profession. Though we do donate inordinate amounts of time – something that lots of other professions don’t do and something that I don’t think we get enough credit for doing – we don’t often take entire messy cases on from complete strangers and work them through to the bitter end. We do offer lots of help and education – in our cases, we’ve got divorce and custody seminars, as well as a number of totally free resources – and volunteer to do things like CLASS, spend hours working with charities and domestic violence shelters, and lots of other things. It may not look like you envisioned pro bono work, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t, or that it doesn’t have value.

I definitely recommend that you look into our free books as well as our seminars for more information. Visit our website at hoflaw.com, or give us a call at 757-425-5200 to talk about your case and any help we might be able to provide.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.