Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Why it's difficult to find pro bono lawyers in California?
If you are wondering why it's so hard to find a pro bono lawyer in California, you're not the only one. Chances are, you've been spending a lot of time researching about this subject.
There are some alternatives to find FREE legal representation when you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer in California, however, you must be ready to spend a lot of time and effort to find these legal resources as these are generally not available.
In our article "clients lawyers want to avoid" we discussed how to increase your chances of hiring a great lawyer regardless of your ability to pay for legal fees, here we will discuss specifically about California pro bono lawyers.
So What is a California Pro Bono Lawyer And Why They Are So Hard To Find?
California pro bono lawyers are legal professionals who volunteer to work for free. The keyword here is "VOLUNTEER". Very few California lawyers want to work for free ( or anyone else for that matter, including you dear reader 😉 ), and thus do not work for free. Even fewer GREAT California lawyers are willing to work for free, and thus do not work for free.
That fact alone should answer the question of why California pro bono lawyers are hard to find.
Moreover, there are procedural rules that govern each lawsuit process and it takes time for each step. Even California courts have been designed to streamline the litigation process in a lawsuit. Between depositions and the discovery involved in each case, lawsuits can take several months, in some cases years.
Occasionally volunteering in your community for the holidays in a food drive, animal shelter, a retirement home, a church or the Red Cross is understandable. But who in their right mind wants to work for FREE every single day? No one!
When you ask an attorney for pro bono representation, you're not only asking him or her to work for FREE but also their staff. Additionally, there are other costs associated with any legal case such as filing fees, investigator fees, court reports not to mention many other operational day to day expenses.
There's another reason why California pro bono attorneys are very hard to find. Taking on a new client means starting a new working relationship and attorneys don't want to be in a position where their time and effort are not appreciated. In an article by Susan Cartier Liebel "I want to fire my pro bono client, help?" she explains that her pro bono client is disrespectful, abrasive and hard to work with.
Like everything else in life, when people are given something for FREE, they hardly ever appreciate it. Despite Susan's best intentions to help someone in need because she wanted to give back to her community, she found herself stuck in a toxic relationship with someone who wanted everything for nothing (and with an attitude).
Similarly, this is the case of a law student who posted in Reddit "Pro bono clients are driving me mad" explains, people are rude, don't show up to appointments and don't comply with the requirements needed to move their case forward. He only lasted under 4 months of doing pro bono work because he also felt unappreciated no matter how good his intentions were. The reality as he describes, the few non-profits offering pro bono work have a very high turn around rate as most volunteers will quit after a few weeks.
In other words, your case will be handed down to different pro bono attorneys from start to finish. It's logistically and strategically impossible to set out an efficient legal strategy when you need to reset and start from scratch every other month with a new attorney.
When available, pro bono California attorneys will usually offer limited assistance with legal forms or support on very simple and straight forward transactional cases. California lawyers are very busy people, soliciting any lawyer with pro bono work will most likely result in an immediate rejection. If they do not offer it (on their website or as members of a pro bono organization), don't ask for it! You'll get the same reaction as if you are asking for a $50,000 donation.
And so a lot of people falsely believe that if they need a California lawyer for any case, but cannot pay for one, they nevertheless have the right to having one appointed to them.
FREE California lawyers are only the right of criminals who have been charged with a serious felony such as first degree murder, rape or homicide DUI (hence your Miranda rights) that could potentially result in being locked up for a few decades.
In this case, a random, overworked, and under-paid California public defender will be appointed to defend them in court.
Hopefully, this isn't your situation.
Having said that, your options to solve your legal issue at little cost or for free are:
Local legal aid and interest groups, you can find a list here.
Visit a law school, some law students will do volunteer work from time to time. It's like going to a beauty school to get a FREE haircut so students can practice on you (not a good idea when your freedom, sanity or finances are at stake)
Contact your State Bar Association, they may offer some alternatives. Most likely the same ones as option number 1 above.
Go to small claims court, this only applies if your dispute is under $10,000.
Represent yourself in court (it’s like performing open heart surgery on yourself, not recommended).
What About a No-Win/No-Fee Lawyer (on contingency) ?
Another big misconception is that all California lawyers can work on a contingency, for any type of case. A lawyer will never accept a case on contingency if you want to sue your neighbor because his dog barks all night, or because your ex BFF is trashing you on social media (these are real life inquiries that we've received in the past).
The no win / no fee concept is very popular because of the barrage of TV commercials about accident and personal injury cases. In a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer must agree to get paid by taking a percentage of your settlement award to cover legal fees once your case is settled.
If you lose, the attorney doesn't get paid. If you win, you don't get paid (just kidding).
If you win, you and your lawyer get paid. BTW, there have been cases where some unethical lawyers kept the settlement and didn't tell their clients, watch these sleazy characters in this video.
That's why you can't just hire any lawyer (even if you have a million dollars to do so), conduct due diligence to find reputable and honest California lawyers. If you need a referral to pre-screened local lawyers you can submit your request by visiting this link.
Most California lawyers will agree to accept a case on contingency (in exchange for a percentage of your settlement) — 33% to 40% on average ONLY under specific circumstances and for certain types of cases.
Generally, California lawyers will consider accepting a case on a contingency for:
Personal injury (bodily injuries ONLY) no emotional or financial injuries apply here.
Any type of employment discrimination case.
If you have any other type of case, most likely a retainer must be paid up-front to the attorney.
NOTE: If you have been rejected by many firms, there may be other underlying reasons why no one wants to take your case. (we've listed the most common in our self help section)
Other Options To Find a Good Attorney When You Are Strapped For Cash
The best and most realistic approach to finding a competent and experienced lawyer for your case is to request a payment plan. Again, this is entirely up to the attorney and he/she may consider a payment plan IF:
You are nice: You'd think this is obvious but more often than not, people will approach an attorney demanding legal help at gun point (I mean with an attitude). If you connect with the attorney at an emotional level, if you are kind, patient and considerate you will increase your chances of finding someone willing to work with you.
Be realistic: Some cases are extremely difficult and require a lot of time and effort. Again, communicate with your lawyer of choice and recognize that their time is valuable and that you are willing to work with them as a team to get the job done.
Additional Ways To Find A Low-Cost California Lawyer:
Ask for a flat fee: Offer to pay the lawyer a set dollar amount for a particular service, like writing a will. If the matter is very simple and straightforward (i.e an uncontested divorce or a simple bankruptcy filing), many lawyers will agree to charge a flat fee.
Offer to do some of the work yourself: Many lawyers will agree to allow you to do some of the work yourself to save time and money. For example, you might be able to make copies, pick up or deliver certain legal documents. A lawyer may charge you a flat fee for a specific service and you can do the rest.
While pro bono work can be a positive learning experience for law students, it remains the practice of law and thus has inherent risk. Problems often occur when California pro bono lawyers and non profit organizations take an inattentive approach with these type of cases, failing to dedicate the attention and care that would be given to a paying client.
If you are open to a payment arrangement, you can submit your request here.