Family Law

Can I Get a Lawyer for Free in a Divorce Case?

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney

If you think you can’t afford a lawyer, think again. A lot of people need a lawyer when they’re already strapped for cash, such as during a divorce, a child custody battle, or when they become victims of domestic violence. Although many divorce lawyers usually charge a hefty hourly rate, in some cases, you may be able to find legal help for a reduced fee or even for free.

Pro Bono Lawyers

A good starting place in your search for an affordable lawyer is with your state’s bar association (this is the organization that represents the attorneys practicing within that state, maintains attorney records, and runs volunteer attorney programs). Many state bars offer pro bono (free or volunteer) divorce or domestic violence services to individuals who qualify. You will likely have to fill out some paperwork, and depending on your income level and needs, you may be assigned a volunteer attorney. Be aware that free legal help sometimes comes with limitations. It’s important to understand how much your lawyer will do (such as representing you at court hearings and filing motions) and how much you will be expected to do on your own.

Self-Help Divorce Clinics

Many state and county bar associations hold regular clinics providing free legal help to the community. Local lawyers volunteer their time at the clinic to answer questions and help individuals fill out divorce forms. You won’t have a specific lawyer appointed to you, and you may have to ask questions in front of a group, but the legal assistance can get you started on your case. Contact your state’s bar association for more information.

Legal Aid

Additionally, every state has one or more legal aid offices that provide free legal services to those in need. Typically, individuals who are victims of domestic violence, living at or below the poverty level, living with disabilities, or military members will qualify for free legal assistance. Many legal aid offices have a small staff, so the waiting list to get an attorney can be long. If you think you may need help in your divorce case, don’t hesitate to check out your local legal aid services.

Free Divorce Resources

As court records are becoming digitized, more local courts are putting basic divorce forms online. You'll have to read the instructions on the forms, and fill in all the details of your case, but there are resources available for help. For example, many courts publish how-to manuals outlining all the steps in a divorce case, and some courthouses have appointed special clerks to assist unrepresented or “pro-se” individuals. Court clerks can’t give you legal advice, but they can give you some information and point you to the right forms and manuals to complete your paperwork or respond to your spouse’s divorce filings.

Keep Your Expectations Reasonable

Finding free legal help isn’t always easy. Many pro bono law clinics and legal aid offices are understaffed. It may take a lot of work to find an attorney to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. And even if you find an attorney, your phone calls and emails might go unanswered for a few days because your attorney is so busy. Be patient, and capitalize on the help available to navigate the divorce process.

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