The main reason most people don’t hire an attorney is the cost. Attorneys can be expensive and costs can add up quickly. So what should you do if you’re in the position of needing an attorney, but not being able to afford one?

In criminal cases, if you can’t afford an attorney, a public defender will be appointed to you. That is not usually the case in family law, but there are a few exceptions to that. Generally speaking, public defenders are available to defendants in paternity and contempt cases. If you believe you might qualify, speak to someone at the courthouse or seek advice from an attorney.

For all other types of cases the answer of what to do if you can’t afford an attorney depends on the level of income you have. If you are below poverty level, you may be able to receive a free, or pro bono, attorney. Most attorneys do perform some pro bono work, but many prefer to do their pro bono work through organizations. So while you can certainly ask an attorney to take you on as a pro bono case, you’ll probably have better luck going through an organization.

Some organizations only have volunteer attorneys and some are funded by outside sources and have some full-time attorneys on staff. Which organization you should contact will vary depending on your location and your needs. A list of various organizations that offer pro bono attorneys can be found here.

There are a lot more people who qualify for and want a pro bono attorney than there are attorneys to help them, so even if you qualify, there is frequently a long wait.

If you don’t qualify financially, or need help more quickly, you may be able to find a “low bono” attorney. “Low bono” attorneys are typically available to people who fall within the 125%-250% of the federal poverty guidelines and charge a substantially lower rate than they normally would. Some attorneys may have sliding scale fees or accept “low bono” clients privately. Hennepin County Attorney Referral Service and Ramsey County Attorney Referral Service both have lists of attorneys who have agreed to provide low bono services to clients who qualify financially.

If you cannot find a pro bono or low bono attorney, there are also resources that will help you get some advice and guidance in representing yourself. A list of clinics and other resources can be found here.

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