The only thing worse than needing a lawyer is paying for one, especially when his or her hourly rate equals your weekly take-home pay. Whether you’re battling your landlord, a deadbeat client or a Hollywood producer who plagiarized your genius screenplay, there are groups and web sites that can help steer you toward affordable representation. And in some situations, the best lawyer is none at all.
Even if you didn’t go to law school, you may be able to DIY some legal hoo-ha. Nolo.com (short for “No Lo Contendre”—lawspeak for “no dispute”) provides some standard forms (wills, basic contracts, no-contest divorce, LLC and copyrights). They do charge a minor fee, but it beats paying a professional to fill out your address in triplicate.
NoLo is quite clear they provide legal INFORMATION, not advice. Founded with an open-the-legal-system-to-the-masses sentiment brewed in 1970’s Berkeley, their mission is to keep cutomers from unnecessary legal fees. They recommend that you have a lawyer in some circumstances (they never claim to help you in a criminal proceeding), and have a directory on their site, as well as a stockpile of lawyer jokes.
Also, you can get free -preliminary- counsel from a hotline like that of the City Bar Justice Center, the Bar Association’s pro-bono arm. They are open Monday-Friday 9-1 pm, and Tuesday/Thursday afternoons from 4-7 (212-626-7383). The center offers counseling on immigration, contested divorce, cancer support, consumer bankruptcy, and assistance for the elderly and veterans.
Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has a hotline, too (Monday-Friday 10-4, 212-319-ARTS ext.1). Specialty groups like the VLA focus on specific constituents, in the VLA’s case, the creative community. Lawyers have their pick of cases, which they take on pro-bono. Here’s where you can find help from assistance with contracts to litigation, forming a non-profit or figuring out the legal maze of rights and fair use.
A great way to find a group aimed at your needs is lawhelp.org. With links to over 600 legal service projects and organizations in more than 30 languages, this is by far the most comprehensive directory around. Perhaps the most hassle-saving feature is the qualifications listing, which appears under each group and explains who exactly they help. Everyone from the Bar Association to law schools contribute to this excellently maintained and thoroughly useful site, sponsored by the Office of the Attorney General, the Bar Association, and various city and state organizations.
You could also give sites like findlegalhelp.org or even craigslist a try. Use your well-earned craigslist-radar to avoid scams, but believe it or not the site can be a source to find a paralegal or mediator for non-attorney needs. Paralegals can’t give legal “advice,” but they sure can point you in the right direction. Mediators are good for issues like an uncontested divorce (so says this EZineArticle).
Although the New York City Bar recommends lawyers provide 50 hours of community service per year, a recent study found many missing that target. In light of the study’s release, firms have been increasing their number of pro-bono hours. Tap into networks like lawhelp or New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who will connect you with an altruistic attorney.
And in case you’ve ever fantasized about having a lawyer on retainer, but never had the trust fund, consider a pre-paid lawyer. For $14-35 per month, a lawyer will take your calls, counsel you, and draw up most legal papers. It works a lot like a healthcare plan—you pick from a list of attorneys (with whom you may or not meet), and they either send you forms or to another professional (like a notary or financial planner, instead of a podiatrist).
Lawyers are experts at fine print, so be sure of what’s covered before you sign up. Online forums paint a more complete picture of this service, but it can be a good option if you have a myriad of pesky legal problems, plus the need for a will here and there. Companies like offer unlimited access an attorney, and a drastically reduced per-hour charge on in-court appearances. Many employers provide a pre-paid legal service at a discount, so ask at work (if you’re one of those lucky people), or check out the Bar Association’s listing.
Wherever you go, make sure you get your consultation for free, which is a largely standard service. If a lawyer wants to charge you for the first meeting, look elsewhere.