We get a LOT of questions from women looking for pro bono legal services, which is something that very few (if any) lawyers offer these days–at least, not in the way that you’re thinking. There’s definitely a perception among people (in Virginia, anyway) that lawyers are honor or duty bound to provide a certain amount of pro bono service. It seems like every single day we get calls from women who need free legal help. The thing is, though, that almost no one (including us) is willing to take on an entire case for free.
But aren’t lawyers supposed to provide free legal services?
Probably the way pro bono works in reality is at least a little bit different from the way you think it works. But you’re right—according to our legal rules of ethics, we’re supposed to provide a certain amount of volunteer work each year. Of course, the way the rule is worded, it tells us that we “should” provide some legal services, not that we absolutely have to. Besides that, it’s up to us to decide in what way we’ll provide a service. In case you’re wondering, here’s exactly what our rule says:
Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service
(a) A lawyer should render at least two percent per year of the lawyer’s professional time to pro bono publico legal services. Pro bono publico services include poverty law, civil rights law, public interest law, and volunteer activities designed to increase the availability of pro bono legal services.
(b) A law firm or other group of lawyers may satisfy their responsibility collectively under this Rule.
(c) Direct financial support of programs that provide direct delivery of legal services to meet the needs described in (a) above is an alternative method for fulfilling a lawyer’s responsibility under this Rule.
I can’t afford an attorney. Will an attorney take my case on for free?
Most people seem to think that, because we are supposed to provide legal services to benefit the public, that we take on entire cases for free when in fact that is rarely the case at all.
Why? Well, taking on a case is a really big deal—as you’re no doubt already aware. Though an attorney may be free or willing to take on an entire case to support a cause he or she believes in, in many cases, we’re not free to do whatever we like. Since we don’t really know what’s involved in a case before it gets going, it makes many lawyers nervous to just take on an entire case for free.
Most of the time, attorneys offer pro bono services without taking on entire cases. They volunteer hours in Legal Aid offices or other free clinics, teach seminars on the law, or work with nonprofit organizations to represent clients at specific points in the process. If you’re a member of the Virginia Becah Bar Association, for example, you’re supposed to volunteer your time at least twice a year to work with the CLASS (Concerned Lawyers Advocating Spousal Safety) organization, pursuing protective orders for people who have found themselves in abusive domestic situations. That way, we can provide information and legal services, but in a more limited (and, therefore, safer) way.
I think it’s safe to say that most lawyers DO feel like they have a responsibility to give back to their community, and to help provide legal information and guidance to people who just can’t afford to hire an attorney to represent themselves. Still, it’s probably also safe to say that very, very few attorneys take on entire cases without charging a fee–unless, of course, they take the case on a contingent fee.
In a case where a lawyer takes a case on a contingent fee, they take your case without charging you any money up front, but they make their money on the back end–sometimes, by taking as much as 40% of what you receive at the end. In divorce, though, it’s considered unethical to take cases on a contingency fee, so we can’t do it that way. We could be disbarred for that!
What about Legal Aid?
Legal Aid is a great place to turn if you really don’t have the money to hire an attorney. Of course, as you can probably imagine, there are a lot of people turning to Legal Aid for help.
The first thing you should know is that Legal Aid has strict income requirements. If you income doesn’t fall below a certain level, they can’t help you. If your income DOES fall below that level, though, you’ll get at least some assistance.
The levels of help that Legal Aid can provide vary widely. In general, though, Legal Aid offices don’t take on contested cases, for much the same reason as attorneys don’t take on entire cases pro bono. It’s too much of a drain on time and resources. Instead, Legal Aid tries to help the people with uncontested cases—because, for the same amount of money and time, they can help far more people.
For some people, all Legal Aid can do is give them a free consultation, and try to point them in the direction of the resources they need to handle their case on their own. Sometimes, though, Legal Aid does take a case and represent the client throughout. It all depends on the circumstances: specifically, your income, and whether the case is contested or uncontested.
For women who can’t afford attorneys, I always recommend starting at Legal Aid. What’s the worst that can happen?
Can I have a lawyer appointed for me?
In a family law case, no. It may seem unfair, and counterintuitive, but in family law cases, attorneys are never appointed. Attorneys are appointed for defendants in criminal cases who can’t afford to retain their own counsel.
Why? Well, don’t shoot the messenger here, but it’s because our legal system is based on a belief that a person who faces criminal charges (especially charges that come with the risk of jail time) deserves to have a lawyer to defend against those charges. As far as other types of cases are concerned, they are generally considered less fundamental.
I agree that it doesn’t make sense, and I understand that you’re probably feeling that our Founding Fathers never went through a particularly nasty divorce—if your liberty isn’t at stake, then whose is? Still, though—that’s the way the law works. Lawyers aren’t appointed in non-criminal (otherwise known as civil) cases. Divorce is not criminal; it’s civil.
What do YOU do for your pro bono work?
It’s a fair question. Though it’s certainly up to each attorney to decide for him or herself how he or she wants to provide pro bono service (if at all), most of us do provide pro bono service of some kind, though the types of service may vary dramatically from one attorney to another.
At my law firm, Hofheimer Family Law, we teach monthly divorce seminars on what Virginia women need to know about divorce, and quarterly custody seminars, designed to help teach Virginia moms how to represent themselves in their custody cases. I speak regularly at these seminars, as do all the other attorneys in my firm, and we consider that to be our pro bono service. We provide a great deal of free legal information to the women who attend our seminars. It’s an excellent program, and one that I’m proud to be affiliated with.
There is a cost to attend our seminars (just so that we can afford to rent the space and print the materials; we don’t actually make any profit ourselves), but we keep it low so that any woman who needs the information can afford to attend.
Our Second Saturday divorce seminars are held on the Second Saturday of each month (hence the name) in both Newport News and Virginia Beach, and on the Third Tuesday of the month in Virginia Beach. Each seminar is taught b one of our licensed and experienced divorce attorneys, and covers some of the most frequently asked questions we hear. The cost is $40 to attend if you pre-register online, and $50 at the door. We do sometimes accept fee waiver requests from therapists, social workers, and victim advocates, so, if money is really an issue, it might be a good idea to talk to your therapist (or whoever you’re working with), and see if they can arrange a fee waiver for you based on your financial need. For more information about Second Saturday, or to register to attend, click here.
Custody Bootcamp for Moms, on the other hand, is designed to help moms prepare for their custody and visitation cases in the juvenile courts. Whether you’ve already hired an attorney, or plan to go at it on your own, Custody Bootcamp for Moms is full of Virginia-specific, up to date information about Virginia custody cases. It’s an intense, all day seminar, covering pretty much everything you need to know—including how to make opening and closing arguments, prepare a trial notebook, question and cross examine witnesses, and get your evidence in (while keeping his out). The cost to attend is $197. We offer one scholarship per seminar, and take applications from therapists, social workers, and victim advocates, again, based on the financial need of the applicant. For more information about Custody Bootcamp for Moms, or to register online to attend, click here.
Surely you know SOMEONE who takes cases pro bono!
I wish I could tell you that I did, but I don’t know anyone. You’re certainly welcome to call around and see what answers different firms give you, but it’s probably pretty unlikely. If you find an attorney who offers a free consultation, it can’t hurt to meet with them just to see what advice you get. Of course, many family law attorneys don’t offer free consultations (like our firm), but, if you can find one, why not take advantage of it?
I don’t tell you this to be discouraging, though I’m sure that the answer is not what you were hoping for. You’re welcome to try to call around and see whether you can find an answer that’s more like what you wanted to hear, but I think it’s probably pretty unlikely that you’ll find an attorney willing to take on an entire case for little or no fee. Manage your expectations, and come up with a plan—your time will probably be better spent that way.
When there really isn’t money to hire an attorney, it’s definitely tricky. I get asked this question all the time: “If I can’t afford an attorney, what should I do?” It’s difficult, for sure, and I don’t have a great answer. I can’t make money appear where it doesn’t already exist, and I don’t have any magic tricks up my sleeve that make affording an attorney any easier for people who can’t just do it on their own. I’m sorry; I wish I could.
I really don’t have money. What can I do?
I don’t have a magic wand. I don’t have an awesome answer that will cure all evils, or create extra cash flow. It’s really difficult, and there’s no way around it. I’m sensitive to what you’re going through, but that doesn’t mean I have the answer. Still, we see lots of people who say they can’t afford an attorney—but they have a friend, family member, or neighbor who can help, at least temporarily. Sometimes, our clients take out credit cards, or qualify for financing some other way. It’s not perfect, and it may not be the answer you’re looking for, but it’s something worth considering, especially if your divorce is contested. You’ll want support however you can get it.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you have a better idea of how pro bono service really works, and what kind of steps you can start taking (like attending a seminar) if you’re afraid that the money really just isn’t there to hire an attorney. Of course, it’s not a perfect solution—if there’s not money, there’s just not money, but hopefully you have a better idea now of the options available to you so that you can start to make the best decisions for your case.
Good luck to you. As always, if you have questions, feel free to give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.