When it comes to trying to deal with legal matters while living on a budget, it can be both daunting and very worrying. Luckily, there are a number of options that you can explore in order to keep your legal costs to a minimum. From representing yourself in court to minimizing your attorney’s fees, there are various steps that you can take to avoid blowing your budget on high legal fees.
Consider whether you really need a lawyer.
Some legal matters may be easily settled on your own, without a lawyer. This could save you a substantial amount of money. This may not be a good option for every situation, but a close evaluation of your particular legal case can help you determine whether a lawyer is necessary at all.
Representing yourself in court without a lawyer’s help is referred to as “pro se” or “pro per” in some jurisdictions.
If there isn’t much money involved in your situation, try settling the matter on your own outside of court. You may be able to come to an agreement with some friendly phone calls or emails laying out your case and stressing that avoiding court would be advantageous for everyone involved.
You can theoretically represent yourself in court on any issue, even if it is more serious or involves more money. If you decide to represent yourself in a substantial court case, try finding a good legal “DIY” handbook, such as those published by Nolo Press. You may be able to buy such books cheaply online (secondhand), or your local library may have them available to check out. Some libraries even have legal forms and instructions for use in their local courts.
Determine whether small claims court is an option for you.
Small claims courts exist for a reason. It helps people have their day in court to resolve small disputes. In small claims courts, most people are not represented by attorneys. The precise rules and requirements vary by jurisdiction or geographic area. This option is a less expensive way to pursue a court case in which you represent yourself. There is generally a limit on the monetary amount allowable in small claims court, which can be up to a few thousand dollars. The filing fees typically range from $30 to $100.
Explore available self-help legal resources.
There are a variety of resources in every state that can assist a person who is representing himself or herself in court. All of these resources may be available to you at no or low cost. These resources may include the following:
Court forms and instructions
Legal self-help centers
Self-help legal clinics
Law school clinics.
Typically, self-help legal clinics and centers are limited to civil law issues, and do not address criminal law issues. If you are facing criminal charges, you will be entitled to have a public defender appointed to you at public expense if you are unable to hire a lawyer and you are facing the potential for incarceration.
Determine if your court has a legal self-help center or pro se forms.
Many courts have established legal self-help centers or provide pro se forms and instructions for people who do not have attorneys. For instance, Maricopa County, Arizona, runs an extensive self-service legal center in their court system, which provides information, forms, and instructions for people who are unrepresented by attorneys in a variety of situations. If your jurisdiction has these services available, you may be able to use them to get the information that you need and file the appropriate documents in court that are necessary to resolve your legal matter.
Find out if your county or state operates a legal hotline, which provides legal advice for people facing certain legal issues.
You can search online or in your telephone book for legal hotline numbers. For instance, many Texas bar associations operate legal hotlines for victims of domestic violence and senior citizens.
See if you have access to a self-help legal clinic.
Some county courthouses, bar associations, or legal aid organizations operate self-help legal clinics. These programs may allow you to ask questions in person, by phone, or online. They also may give you assistance in filling out legal forms or other documents. Some of the types of cases that these clinics may handle involve uncontested divorces, child support modifications, and landlord/tenant disputes.
Check out your local law school to see if they operate any legal clinics.
In these clinics, law students, who are supervised closely by an experienced attorney, provide free legal services to individuals in the community. You may need to have a low household income in order to qualify for clinic services. Law school clinics often address legal issues such as landlord/tenant disputes, domestic violence, and family law.
Apply for federally-funded legal aid services.
There is a large network nationwide of legal aid programs that receive funding through the Legal Services Corporation, which is an office of the federal government. These offices employ lawyers and paralegals to offer free legal advice and services for eligible individuals in certain types of cases, including divorces, employment disputes, landlord and tenant issues, and the denial of public benefits. In order to be eligible for free services, your household income typically must fall beneath a certain amount.
Most LSC-funded programs use the federal poverty guidelines in order to determine if you qualify for free legal services. For more information on whether your household income falls under the federal poverty guidelines, click here.
You can use a search tool on the LSC website to find legal aid programs in your state. You also can ask for contact information at your local courthouse, your local bar association, or you can look in the phone book under legal services or legal aid.
Apply for free legal help through your state or local pro bono program.
Many state and local bar associations sponsor pro bono programs, which match volunteer lawyers with people who qualify for free legal advice and representation. Some nonprofit organizations also offer free legal services.
You may have to prove that your household income falls under the federal poverty guidelines or another set of income guidelines in order to be eligible for free legal services.
You can look online for local or state pro bono organizations that serve your area.
Your local bar association and your local courthouse are both likely to have contact information about local pro bono programs.
Determine whether any law firms in your area offer pro bono services.
Some law firms, particularly larger firms in big cities, may have their own pro bono departments for some types of cases. You can contact these law firms by telephone or online to see if they would handle a pro bono case like yours.
Contact your local lawyer referral service.
Many state and local bar associations have a referral service that may include a free consultation with an attorney. To find out if your state or local bar association has a program like this, you can visit the website for the American Bar Association, or search online for a local lawyer referral service.
Purchase unbundled services.
In some states, you can hire an attorney to handle only a portion of a legal matter, rather than the entire matter, because you can handle the rest of the case on your own. Instead of hiring a lawyer to represent you for all of the aspects of a case, you would simply hire her to consult on specific features of your case.
For example, you may be able to hire a lawyer just to go over any paperwork you’re filing, just to give you advice on a certain situation, or just to tell you about your legal rights before you proceed with a course of action.
Note that not all states make this option available for lawyers under their rules of professional conduct. In several states, attorneys are required to handle the entire legal matter or withdraw from the case altogether. You will need to contact your local bar association in order to determine if any lawyers offer an unbundled option, or if it is even an option in your state.
Do as much as you can on your own.
Your lawyer’s time is your money, so the more you can do independently, the more money you will save. If you spend time calling your lawyer for explanation of legal terms that you can look up yourself, you are wasting money. Taking charge and handling as much of your case as you can can save money in the long run. For instance, you can probably file a petition for divorce on your own, in most cases, and later hire an attorney when it is time to attend a court hearing.
The less time that an attorney has to spend explaining legal concepts and procedures to you, the less he or she will charge you. Plus, by educating yourself, you will have a clear sense as to what sorts of things you can handle on your own, and what will require the assistance of an attorney.
Get a clear idea of how much your case will cost.
At your initial consultation with a lawyer, you should describe your case and ask him or her to give a best estimate of how much your case will cost. While a lawyer can’t foresee all circumstances that might occur in your case, he or she can usually give you a good estimate of fees and costs. However, keep in mind that if your case takes an unanticipated turn or becomes significantly more complicated, your costs may increase quite a bit from the original estimate.
Ask for alternative billing plans.
Some lawyers bill by the hour, but other types of billing may be available to you. Talk to your lawyer about your budget and ask about their billing practices before you commit to having her represent you.
Contingency fees are a popular method of billing in personal injury cases. You pay your attorney only a percentage of the amount you recover from the other party when the case is over. However, any expenses that your attorney has throughout your case, like court filing fees, will be your responsibility. You may have to pay some of these expenses up front to the lawyer or as they are incurred throughout your case.
Some attorneys use flat-rate billing when the amount and nature of work is predictable. If you have a routine traffic court matter, a DUI or DWI, an uncontested divorce, or need to have a will drafted, a flat rate might make your costs easier to foresee.
Negotiate your retainer fee.
Many attorneys require you to pay a retainer fee at the beginning of your case in order to hire them to represent you. The amount of a retainer fee will differ from one jurisdiction to the next, and also depends on the type of legal matter that you need the attorney to handle. This fee can be substantial in some cases. Try negotiating with the attorney to arrive at a reduced retainer amount or ask if the retainer can be paid in installments over time.
Ask for a payment plan.
Some attorneys will allow you to enter into a payment plan for their services, rather than having to pay a large retainer up front. You could arrange to be billed monthly or biweekly for the lawyer’s services, which may make it easier to budget. You also will be relieved from having to come up with a large sum of money all at once.
Explore sliding-scale fee programs.
Some states may have programs that provide lawyers at sliding-scale fees, based on your income. Getting legal representation through this type of program could greatly reduce your attorney’s fees. Check with your local or state bar association for information about these types of programs.
Hire a younger lawyer.
Younger, less experienced lawyers may charge much lower hourly fees than older, more experienced lawyers. As these lawyers may have less business, they may be more willing to consider charging you a flat fee or a discounted rate. They also may have more time to devote to your case. For a relatively simple and straightforward legal matter, you may find a younger lawyer who is well-qualified to handle it at a much lower cost than other lawyers in your area.
Provide all the details.
After you have decided to hire a lawyer, you have to communicate with him or her. To help your lawyer work as efficiently (and cheaply) as possible, get all your details together. If you’re prepared to answer the lawyer’s questions, you can make the most of any meetings you have. You should also provide the lawyer with any documentation that you have pertaining to your legal matter.
Group your questions.
If your attorney is billing by the hour, you want to minimize the time that he or she has to spend on your matter. Many attorneys bill in six-minute increments, so even a quick phone call to your attorney will cost 1/10th of an hour (possibly $25). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t contact your attorney. However, be efficient. Don’t call your attorney five times during the day. Make a list of things you’d like to talk about and call once. The same applies to email.
Keep your address and phone number current with your attorney at all times. Provide documents and information to your attorney as soon as he or she requests it. If your attorney has to spend time chasing you down or repeatedly requesting information from you, he or she will have to charge you for those actions. Minimize your attorney’s fees by being as cooperative and timely with your attorney as possible.
Rely on your attorney for legal advice only.
Your attorney is not your therapist or your friend. If you use your attorney in this manner, you will end up spending far more in attorney’s fees than you had planned. Your attorney will have no choice but to charge you for the time that is spent counseling you or even having his staff members talk to you about issues that aren’t really legal in nature.