Finding a free or low-cost lawyer is difficult because there are a lot of people who need lawyers but cannot afford them. Here are the main groups that may be able to help you:
Court-based self-help services
Legal aid agencies and other non-profit groups
Lawyer-referral services and bar associations
Dispute resolution programs
Prepaid legal services plans
Legal aid agencies
There are legal aid offices in many cities throughout California. Legal aid agencies are non-profit organizations that provide free legal services to people below a certain income level. Before you can get help from a legal aid agency, you usually have to qualify for their help based on your low income. Because there are so many people in need of legal help, your income has to be fairly low to qualify.
Also, legal aid agencies cannot help with all types of cases. Legal aid agencies usually help with domestic violence cases, family law, evictions, public benefits, immigration, employment issues, and other types of cases that can cause serious problems in a person's every day life. They will probably not be able to help you if you want to sue someone because of a car accident for example (unless you are filing in small claims court, since some legal aid programs do help with small claims cases).
But if you need a lawyer and cannot afford one, it is always a good idea to try to get help from a legal aid agency in your area. Just do not be discouraged if they cannot help you.
Use LawHelpCalifornia.org to find legal aid offices in your area and find out what areas of law they cover. This website can also help you with lawyer referral services, and other free and low-cost services in your county.
Nonprofit and public interest groups
Non-profit public interest organizations, like groups concerned with civil liberties or housing discrimination, may be able to help you. These groups sometimes have staff lawyers who might be able to handle your case. Others provide legal help only to groups of people rather than to individuals. For example, they might help you and your neighbors convince your city council to install a traffic light at a busy intersection.
Use LawHelpCalifornia.org to find nonprofit groups in your area and find out if they may be able to help you with your legal problem.
There are several government agencies that can offer legal help. If you look up information on this website by legal topic, you will find information about specific government agencies that help with that topic.
For example, in the child support section, you will find a lot of detailed information about your local child support agency and how they can help parents collect and pay child support for their children. Click to find the local child support agency in your county.
If you are being charged with a crime and you cannot afford a lawyer, you may qualify for free help from your local public defender’s office. Usually, the court will refer you to a public defender. If the public defender cannot take your case or if there is no public defender in your area, the court will usually appoint another lawyer to represent you for free. Find the public defender for your county.
You can also find these government agencies in the blue pages of your phone book. And you can find them online.
Lawyer referral services help people find lawyers. They can tell you about free or low-cost legal services in your area for people who qualify. If you do not qualify for free help, they can give you other information to help you find legal help that does not cost you a lot of money. For example, they keep lists of lawyers who will meet with you once to discuss your case. They will not charge you very much -- usually $20 to $45. Sometimes, this initial consultation is all you need to get started on your own. The lawyer will also explain the services he or she can offer you and how much you can expect to pay. Some lawyers have lower fees for people who do not have very much money. Some lawyers will help you with key parts of your case and let you do the rest (called "limited-scope representation" or "unbundling").
Some law schools have free legal clinics for certain types of legal problems. Your local bar association or your court will likely know about these clinics and can give you more information. Or contact your local law school to find out.
Many communities have "dispute resolution" programs. These programs can try to help "mediate" or work out problems instead of going to court, so you may not need a lawyer. Find more information on resolving your dispute out of court.
You may belong to a prepaid group legal services plan through your employer, your union, or your credit union. in general, most basic plans provide legal advice and consultation by telephone and may also include brief office consultations, review of simple legal documents, preparation of a simple will, discounts on legal services through a network of lawyers, access to a database of legal forms and documents, and short letters written or phone calls made by a lawyer to an adverse party. Check to see if you belong to a plan.
Prepaid legal services plans work in a variety of ways. When you consider a plan, pay careful attention to what the plan does and does not cover. If you do not anticipate having legal needs in the coming year that will be covered by the plan, you should think carefully before purchasing a plan. Similarly, if you think that you might take advantage of a service under the plan, such as the preparation of a simple will, be aware that lawyers who accept the plan will likely try to sell you an upgraded service. In some cases, it will make sense to obtain the upgraded service, but there may not be any cost savings as a result of plan membership.
Also, if you find that you do not like the lawyer available through your plan, you may find that you are unable to change lawyers through the plan or that there are no other lawyers in the area who participate in the plan. You may wish to inquire about the identities of local lawyers who accept a specific plan before making the decision to purchase the plan.
If you are purchasing a plan through an independent representative, instead of directly from the corporation that sponsors the plan (or through a group such as your employer, union, or credit union), you should pay special attention to the written language of the plan and compare this to any promises made by the representative. Plans that sell through multilevel marketing may refuse to take responsibility for any false promises made by an independent representative, who may well be primarily motivated by earning a commission rather than serving your best interests.
You may be eligible for a prepaid legal services plan through your employer, your union, or your credit union. If not, you may wish to look at plans endorsed by or sponsored by a reputable organization, such as the American Bar Association’s American Prepaid Legal Services Institute's listing of legal service plans. Your regional Better Business Bureau may also be able to provide you with consumer information about particular plans.