It’s a fact that the average person will face 4 to 6 legal situations every year. In fact, 50% of all households have a pressing legal situation right now (and the fact that you’re reading this probably means you’ve got a legal situation). Of course, a legal situation is just being in trouble with the law, but rather a legal situation is any situation in which the advice of a competent attorney would be beneficial to your situation. It’s also a fact that the national average And while we live in a country founded upon the premise of “Equal Justice Under Law,” for most people actually getting the legal help they need is often times a matter of choosing between legal help and eating or having a roof over one’s head. The average attorney charges around $300 per hour, usually with a retainer fee, which is an up-front fee of a certain number of hours pre-paid in advance (so 5 hours at $300 per hour would yield a $1,500 retainer fee), with any additional time paid as it accrues. Given this, it’s no wonder why most people find it cheaper to just get ripped off rather than go to an attorney! If you are in a situation where you need or may need legal counsel, what options do you have?
Pro Bono: What It Is… And What It Isn’t
The term pro bono comes from the Latin pro bono publico, or “for the public good.” The concept being that, since many people cannot afford legal help (I’ve even met lawyers who admitted that they couldn’t afford their own law firms rates!), legal help should be given to those who need it most (and are least able to pay for it). Most people are aware of the idea of a pro bono attorney because they’ve heard of them on television or in the movies. A “free attorney” is a powerful idea, and so the concept sticks in the mind.
In the United States, the American Bar Association (ABA) recommends attorneys give 50 hours of free service per year. However, various state and city regulations can and do amend that, some recommending as few as 20 hours. The biggest point to note is that these are not required of the attorneys, generally; and across the board, most law firms do not come close to their required hours.
The ABA does have a list of pro bono attorney groups and law firms available on their website. Most of those listed, however, are for specific cases or issue types (e.g., for legal issues dealing with the Arts or the Humanities, etc.). If you need an attorney for a personal issue, you may have a hard time finding an attorney in your area who specializes in the field you need and who can accept your case (assuming, of course, that you even qualify). So if you can’t find a pro bono attorney, what other options do you have?
Option 1: Legal Aid
Legal Aid is available in some form in all 50 states. It is a pro bono service (i.e., there to serve the public good), but it is not always a free service. Legal Aid attorneys are sometimes public defenders, and often paid for wholly or partially by state or local subsidies. Legal Aid sprung in part out of the necessity of needing to provide legal help for those who could not find a pro-bono attorney. Many attorneys who offer their service through Legal Aid will work on a reduced fee system, and some will work for free. However, income qualifications and issue qualifications must be met, and there is often a waiting list ranging from months to years for certain issues and in certain municipalities.
If Legal Aid isn’t an option, there is one other option which most people are unaware of but which can greatly benefit most people.
Option 2: Insurance Type Legal Services
Legal Insurance and insurance type products have been available in the United States for about 40 years, although they are common in some European nations (with as many as 80% of some nations having a plan of this type). Legal insurance and pre-paid legal service plans work much like medical insurance, with a small premium granting access to a range of various legal services, from consultation, letters and phone calls, document review, and representation in court. The benefit of legal insurance plans is that they are very affordable for most budgets, often costing less than the cost of one standard hour of attorney time for an entire years worth of coverage. These plans cannot, however, cover 100% of all legal expenses, so some legal issues might incur additional costs (generally things like bankruptcy, child custody and divorce, as well as criminal charges). Such costs are often defrayed by percentage discounts off of the hourly rate of the attorney or attorneys providing the service.