A new client just came in to see a lawyer.
“Can you tell me how much you charge?” said the client.
“Of course”, the lawyer replied, “I charge $200 to answer three questions!”
“Well that’s a bit steep, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is,”said the lawyer, “And what’s your third question?”

Funny joke, right? Well, it's funny until you need a lawyer and have no idea how you're going to pay for one. Allow me to introduce myself: I'm a practicing attorney who has worked in the pro bono (free!) legal services sector, and I'm here to provide you with a basic road map to free and reduced fee legal services that may be available in your community. Straight from the horse's mouth, here's your road map:

Criminal Matters–Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come for You?

Have you been charged of a crime that could lead to jail time but cannot afford a lawyer? If so, then you can request that the court appoints you free legal counsel (a public defender). Says who? Says the United States Constitution, that's who. Thanks, Thomas Jefferson and friends!

Civil Matters–From Divorce to Dog Bites

If you need a lawyer for a civil matter, such as divorce or perhaps you slipped and fell on an organic banana peel at the grocery store, broke your collarbone and now want to sue. Then you no longer have the right to a free lawyer under the Constitution. Chin up. Fortunately, there are some free or reduced fee legal services available for civil matters.

Not to be nosey, but what's your income level?

Individuals or families are typically eligible for free legal services programs (also known as pro bono legal service programs) if their yearly income from 2011 is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Find the chart here to see where you stand.

If your income level is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, then visit the American Bar Association's website and click on your relevant state to find a program nearby. Remember, not every program will offer free legal services for every type of civil legal matter nor will you qualify for every free legal services program despite having an individual or household income level less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

If your income level is more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, then you have several other options.

Are you a university student? Your university: a one-stop shop for season football tickets, cramped dorm rooms, mind-numbingly boring literature seminars and–you might be surprised to learn–legal services just for students. Some universities offer student legal services for enrolled students, and they may be able to help with a myriad of legal matters such as filing a suit against your evil landlord who refuses to fix your air conditioning or drafting a power of attorney document so a loved one can make medical decisions on your behalf if you get injured while studying abroad. This may be a less expensive option than seeking private legal representation. Check with your school.

Are you special? Well, as your first-grade teacher preached, we're all special. What I really mean is: "Are you a member of a special population?" There are free or reduced fee legal services available for some special populations.

Find a low fee lawyer. A cheap(er) lawyer is not like a unicorn–they really do exist, I promise. We lawyers, contrary to popular belief, are not all money-hungry sharks. Some lawyers may take on your case for a low fee arrangement or for free. After all, many states require that their lawyers complete a designated amount of pro bono (free) legal services a month. Use a lawyer referral service, such as this one to find a public-service oriented lawyer.

Do it yourself. Hiring a lawyer isn't always necessary–you may be able to handle some simple legal matters (i.e. setting up a basic will) by yourself. However, representing yourself is always risky and can be an overwhelming task (even if you fancy yourself a legal eagle since you own the box set of Ally McBeal and are a Law & Order junkie). For more information, see the American Bar Association Consumer's Guide to Legal Help. Also, the guidebook, How to Represent Yourself in Court and Win (NOLO Edition), is an excellent resource. A large portion of this book's text is available for free on Google Books here.

This has been a guest post by Lisa from Miami, FL
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