One of the issues people discover when they are planning to file for divorce is that the cost of a divorce lawyer is more than they expect. When child custody and visitation are involved, the cost gets even higher. What should you do if you cannot afford a divorce lawyer, but don't want to represent yourself without a lawyer?
For those who qualify, legal aid organizations often provide excellent source of legal representation for divorce and family law cases. The Legal Services Corporation provides a directory of all offices within its nation-wide network.
Unfortunately, legal aid offices are frequently overwhelmed by requests for services, and thus may have waiting lists or additional criteria restricting the types of family law cases they accept. For example, a legal aid office may prioritize cases involving abuse or domestic violence.
Law schools provide clinical law programs, through which law students can gain experience representing clients under the supervision of a licensed lawyer. The criteria for accepting cases are normally the same as for a legal aid office, and the ability of a law school clinic to accept a case will depend upon the size and capacity of the clinic as well as the academic calendar. You may consider contacting law schools in your area to determine what types of cases their clinics accept, and whether you might qualify for their services.
If a law school clinic or legal aid office is unable to represent you, they may nonetheless be able to suggest attorneys in the area who are willing to work with lower-income clients. Similarly, the state bar association for your state may maintain lists of lawyers who offer discounted services to less affluent members of their community.
When domestic violence or child abuse is an issue in a divorce, a spouse may be able to get legal representation or a referral to a lawyer through a domestic abuse shelter. You can find domestic shelters near you through a national directory maintained by a charitable organization, Theresa's Fund.
Some people are eligible for legal insurance programs as an employee benefit, while others may obtain legal insurance through a company that sells policies directly to the public. The key when purchasing or using legal insurance is to know exactly what benefits are covered by the plan, when you become eligible to use those benefits, and the point at which you can discontinue your insurance policy without affecting the cost of legal services that you have obtained through the plan.
For example, if a legal insurance program offers basic legal services for a flat fee, such as a fixed-price divorce, you need to read the fine print to determine what additional fees and costs may be charged.
- Does the quoted fee include filing fees and service fees?
- Does it include a cap on how many hours the attorney will work on the case before you have to start paying an additional hourly fee?
- Does it include all aspects of the divorce for which you require representation and, if not, what additional costs should you expect?
If a legal insurance program offers a discount from an attorney's standard hourly rate, or offers flat fee services, you may be able to negotiate the same rate with the participating lawyer without going through the insurance plan.
Whether you search online, or look at printed advertisements or the phone book, you are likely to find lawyers in your community who advertise low-cost divorce services. Some of these practices are led by experienced lawyers who have a high-volume divorce business. Others, however, may be operated by inexperienced lawyers who are trying to generate income.
As with legal insurance, before you hire a lawyer who is advertising low-cost services you should find out exactly what is covered by the advertised fee, and what additional fees and costs you can expect to pay during the progress of your divorce case. You should also investigate the lawyer to try to determine if the lawyer has a good reputation in the local legal community and with past clients.
One relatively common scenario in divorce is for one spouse to control the family's income and assets, and the other spouse to lack the resources to easily hire a divorce lawyer. In such a situation, the spouse who lacks resources will often be able to find a lawyer who will start the divorce case without charging a fee, and will bring a motion before the divorce court to have money advanced from the marital estate to cover the legal fees, with any balance settled as part of the final resolution of the divorce case.
While the lawyer may not be charging a discounted fee for the case, such an arrangement can allow a spouse to obtain quality legal services despite lacking the resources to pay a retainer.
Often, a person contacting a law firm for legal representation will ask if the firm offers pro bono legal services. Although most law firms do perform at least some amount of pro bono work, in most cases it is work that they receive through specific referral channels, such as through a local public service organization or legal aid office, and it is rare that a law firm will entertain a request for free legal services from a potential client who contacts it directly.
If you hope for pro bono representation, your best bet is to start with an organization that assists people in your situation, be it a domestic violence shelter, veteran's organizations, organizations for persons with disabilities, or a similar organization, and see if they maintain a legal network.
No matter what an attorney's hourly rate, when you are paying a lawyer to travel to and from court the fees add up quickly. When you are paying a lawyer by the hour and are concerned about cost, it makes sense to find a lawyer whose offices are near the courthouse in which your case will be heard so that the amount of money you end up paying for the lawyer's travel time is minimized.
While it is important to maintain open communications with your lawyer you must keep in mind that, if you are paying your lawyer by the hour, you will be charged a fee for each communication, and for every conversation or exchange that you have with your lawyer. Rather than sending an email or placing a phone call every time you have a question, consider keeping a list of questions for your lawyer so that you can handle all of the questions within a single conversation or exchange.
Sometimes the reason why a divorce and custody case is costly to litigate is because of the issues involved, or the level of conflict in the case. While a true uncontested divorce, where the divorcing spouses agree on every issue, should not be expensive to litigate, most cases are not that simple. Pursuing the lowest-cost option may leave you with a lawyer who lacks legal experience or cannot provide you with the level of service that your case requires.