Remember things about free or low-cost legal services

How can you keep track of legal fees?

Get a fee agreement in writing. If an attorney is unwilling to put a fee agreement in writing, cross that attorney off your list. Some states require written fee agreements for most cases.

Ask your attorney to include in the fee agreement a provision for periodic, itemized billing. An itemized bill should list and describe all charges so that you can review them and compare them to your fee agreement.

You might want to arrange for a ceiling or limit on fees. You might also require your lawyer to get your approval before proceeding beyond a certain amount in legal costs. If you’ve hired an attorney to recover a $10,000 debt, you probably don’t want to pay $8,000 in legal fees to resolve the matter.

Depending upon your financial situation, you may be entitled to free legal services. If you are “indigent” within the meaning of any applicable state or federal guideline, you may be eligible for representation by a public defender in a federal or state criminal case. Low-income people may also qualify for free representation in landlord-tenant and divorce cases. If you need financial help in obtaining legal representation and think that you might qualify for indigent status, contact pro bono and legal services organizations in your area.

In many cases you don’t have to be indigent to get a lawyer for free or at little cost. Some organizations offer their members prepaid legal plans. Often plans include a low or no-cost consultation, or low-cost services in uncontested divorces or simple wills matters. Check your liability insurance policy. Your policy may include coverage for attorney fees or require your insurance company to provide an attorney to defend you in a lawsuit.

Many unions provide free legal services to their members in union-related matters. If your case or claim is work-related, talk to your union representative.

Certain rights or advocacy groups might want to get involved in your case. For example, if you are challenging an unlawful attack on your civil liberties or right to free speech, an organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union may be interested in helping you.

What should you do if you are charged with a crime but can’t afford a lawyer?

If you are indigent and if you are charged with a serious offense, you may be entitled to have an attorney appointed to represent you for free. The federal government and the states provide for the appointment of public defenders for indigent criminal defendants.

Little things add up. Carefully discuss with your lawyer anticipated miscellaneous costs so that you can estimate those costs up front and avoid any unpleasant surprises. Be prepared to scrutinize court costs, filing fees, secretarial time, and delivery charges.

Public defenders are paid by the government and are required to represent clients as vigorously and competently as private attorneys. Public defenders often are specialists with many years of experience in the defense of criminal cases. Don’t underestimate their expertise.

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