Pro Bono Divorce

Posted on Jan 17, 2018 by Katie Carter

People call all the time, wanting pro bono divorce help. Though I certainly understand – wanting a divorce is not the same thing as being in a position financially to be able to afford to have a divorce attorney do it – it’s really not something that any law firms I know of actually offer. (At least, not because someone calls on the phone asking for it!)

Our ethical rules, as most people are aware, do encourage us to provide help to people who can’t afford legal assistance – and we do! We teach our amazing monthly divorce seminars and Custody Bootcamp for Moms for free (we do charge a fee to attend, but that fee goes towards securing room space, providing lunch at Custody Bootcamp, and printing our written materials – the attorney donates her time). We’ve written free divorce and custody books, a number of free reports, and our divorce and custody e-courses, which you can elect to participate in (if you’d like) once you request a copy of any one of our four books.

So, you see, we’re really, really, super, hyper committed to doing uncompensated work that allows Virginia women to figure out what their options and legal rights are in Virginia. You could say it’s our thing.

We can’t, though, take on an entire case, from start to finish, pro bono. I don’t know of anyone (excepting Legal Aid, of course) who does. It’s just…virtually not possible. It’s hard to know, ahead of time, how much would be involved. Some cases take years and years and thousands of attorney hours – something that, honestly, we can’t afford to do if we want to keep the lights on and pay our student loans. That’s not to be unsympathetic; quite the contrary, we are SO sorry that you find yourself in this position! We just can’t take an entire case on pro bono.

We’ve spent a lot of time gathering as much information as possible to help you get the information you need and make the kinds of decisions you need to make, though—and we certainly hope it helps!
Still, there are people out there who desperately need legal assistance, and who just can’t afford to pay for it.

Will the court appoint an attorney to represent me for free?

Unfortunately, no—not in divorce or custody cases. We do have a constitutional right to an attorney, but that’s only extended in criminal cases. According to our constitution, that’s only afforded to someone when their physical liberty is threatened. So, basically, if you’re facing jail time, you can get an attorney appointed to represent you. Divorce cases aren’t criminal though; they’re civil, and no attorneys are appointed in civil cases. The way the law looks at it, these types of cases are optional. You choose to fight for custody, you choose to get a divorce; the court won’t give you an attorney to fund your choices. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just explaining the logic behind the rules. It’s actually pretty unfair, because I’ve seen tons of women who’ve really, really needed more help—especially, in my opinion, women trapped in abusive relationships.

What if I need a protective order?

That’s actually different. Because a protective order is criminal, you can often (though not always) get an attorney to help you for free in a protective order case. That doesn’t mean, of course, you can choose any attorney you want; you have to use the attorney the court appoints for you.

In Virginia Beach, for example, protective order hearings are heard on Fridays, and the court has an attorney from the CLASS program (I think it’s Concerned Lawyers Advocating for Spousal Safety, though don’t quote me on that) there and available to represent anyone who can’t afford an attorney on their own. They’re attorneys like me (I’ve done it before, and so have most of the attorneys in my office) who are specifically designated to handle a certain day. They show up, and handle whatever cases are on the docket. So, sometimes, you won’t get much time with your attorney before your hearing (there can be just too many people there to talk to anyone for very long), but you can have an attorney there to help you make your petition.

So I can’t get help from a lawyer for my divorce?

It’s hard to say. I don’t know of any lawyers that will take on an entire case, but that’s not to say you can’t get any help at all. I’ve met a few women who had some success with Legal Aid, though I can say that they generally only take uncontested cases. If your case is contested (meaning that you and your husband can’t reach an agreement about how everything is going to be divided), I don’t know that there’s any service that will take your entire case on from start to finish.

It’s a question of the time and expense involved; it’s hard for even organizations like Legal Aid to devote so much time and attention to one case when they could devote the same time and attention to, like, ten or fifteen uncontested cases instead.

I’d definitely call Legal Aid first. Chances are, if you meet their income requirements, you can at least get a consultation with an attorney who can help point you in the right direction.

Sometimes, too, the court clerks can be helpful in giving you some of the information you’ll need, and attorneys you might be able to contact (if there even are any, honestly I don’t know). Clerks aren’t attorneys, though, and they have super strict rules against practicing law themselves (obviously, they can’t!) so you have to ask the right questions. Some courts, too, have workbooks for pro se litigants (people representing themselves) that can help make it easier.

Handling an entire contested case, though, is difficult and time consuming, especially when you don’t know all of the legal steps involved. There are attorneys who haven’t handled entire contested cases that have been practicing for several years; it takes awhile, in most cases, to build up to some of the more complex cases. If yours falls into that category, it’ll be tricky, for sure. That’s not to say impossible, though!

Where can I get started if I need free legal help?

Our books, free reports, e-courses, and seminars are all a GREAT place to start. We’ve spent a ton of time generating all this information and putting it in an easily accessible, easy to understand, format so that women like you can get the information you need. That’s not to say that it’ll be easy; divorce and custody cases rarely are, but we do want to provide that information to show our support and understanding for what you’re going through. We say all the time how we wish we could do more, but it’s just not feasible.

Take advantage of all you can get for free. Our website has a lot of that, and should get you started in the right direction. If you’re representing yourself, you’ll have to become familiar with the Virginia Code, too—but you can do it! There’s no rules against representing yourself in divorce and custody cases in Virginia, and there are resources (like ours) out there to help you be able to do it, too.

Stay strong. Keep on fighting. Use the information you can, and prepare for whatever may come your way. We certainly wish you the best, and we hope to see you at one of our live seminars, or even our Girl’s Night Out events.

Good luck to you!