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Get a lawyer
There is a lot of legal information available online and many examples of Ask MetaFilter questions in Law & Government, Human Relations, Work & Money and Home & Garden where a common response is "get a lawyer." This page contains information you may find helpful if you ask a question and receive the response "get a lawyer."
"Get a lawyer" is encouragement to find an attorney for confidential legal advice about your specific situation. It can be unwise and potentially harmful to answer legal questions with information obtained only from the internet, because answers to legal questions often depend on the facts of your case and laws that may vary by state, county and city.
Many questions confront an individual who needs to consult with an attorney, including: How do you find an attorney that practices in the area you need help with? How can you tell if an attorney is qualified or not? How much does it cost? Do attorneys in this field work on contingency? Are there ways to consult an attorney when you don't have a lot of money?
The sections below answer these questions with general information and links to resources that may be helpful to you.
At this time all information is U.S.-specific.
- 1 Basic information about attorneys
- 2 Finding an attorney
- 3 Finding a qualified attorney
- 4 Legal representation on a contingency fee basis
- 5 Free or low-cost avenues for legal assistance
- 5.1 Legal Aid and Public Interest
- 5.2 Unbundled Legal Services
- 5.3 Alternative Dispute Resolution
- 5.4 Other Options
- 5.5 Additional Resources
- 6 AskMe Threads
- 7 MetaTalk Threads
- 8 Disclaimer
Basic information about attorneys
An attorney can provide confidentiality of information3 for clients, and may represent clients in court, provide legal advice, and draft important legal instruments such as wills, trusts, deeds and contracts. Contrary to the media image of attorneys, legal work is often focused on research and drafting documents.
The American Bar Association offers general guidance on when to consult with an attorney.
1 American Bar Association. Appendix A: State Definitions of the Practice of Law. Task Force on the Model Definition of the Practice of Law, 2003.
2 American Bar Association. Directory of Lawyer Disciplinary Agencies. Center for Professional Responsibility, September 2014.
3 American Bar Association. Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.6: Confidentiality of Information.
Finding an attorney
Attorneys often have areas of focus for their practice, such as business law, criminal law, family law, personal injury, wills/trusts, etc. When looking for an attorney, it is important to contact an attorney or law firm that has experience with the type of issue you are facing.
State bar associations usually publish a lawyer directory online that can be searched by location and the type of case, and some state or local bar associations offer low-cost consultations as part of a referral service. The American Bar Association offers information about how to find an attorney and:
- A directory of bar association referral services
- An overview of information for each state that includes referral services, other ways to find a lawyer, and free or low-cost legal services.
Consumer Reports suggests legal specialty groups, which may offer searchable online directories to help find a lawyer, including:
- The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys
- The American College of Real Estate Lawyers
- The American Immigration Lawyers Association
- The Disability Rights Bar Association
- The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys
- The National Association of Consumer Advocates
- The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys
- The National Crime Victim Bar Association
- The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
- The National Employment Lawyers Association (plaintiff-side)
Other groups that may be able to help you find an attorney include local associations organized by identity, including:
One way to find a local association is to use a search engine for the name of your identity, "bar association" and the name of your state or city.
Finding a qualified attorney
Official state bar association directories published online may contain information about attorneys, including public disciplinary records, areas of practice, how long the attorney has been licensed, and whether the attorney has malpractice insurance.
There are many unofficial attorney ranking services online, all of which are to be taken with a grain of salt. One well-known service is Avvo, which is a free website that claims to offer ratings and profiles of over 95% of US lawyers. These profiles include client reviews, peer reviews and public disciplinary records for the attorney.
Once you have a list of attorneys who practice in the area you need assistance in, write a short (2-3 paragraph) narrative of what happened. Write a 2-3 sentence explanation of the outcome you want. Write a short list of immediate questions to ask (Do you handle these cases? What is your fee? Do you have payment plans? If you can't help, do you know someone who can?). Set aside a couple hours and start making calls.
When you call an attorney's office, you will likely get an intake person on the phone, not the attorney. The intake person will first take basic information from you, and may or may not run a "conflict check" during the intake to make sure the attorney is not representing an opposing party or anyone related to your case. The intake person will then want your 2-3 paragraph explanation of what happened; your 2-3 sentence description of the outcome you want; your phone number and possibly an email address.
The intake person may or may not be able to answer your questions and may or may not ask you to fax or email legal documents that have been served upon you. The intake person will probably ask you some questions. The intake person will either say "We do not handle this sort of case" at which point you ask for a referral; or they will say "The attorney will return your phone call within X hours/days." It's possible the intake person will set up an appointment for you to visit the office. If not, you will set that up when you talk to the attorney. In most instances you will not be charged for this intake phone call or the intake appointment.
During the intake appointment with the attorney, you will be asked very pointed questions. The attorney will likely give you legal advice, including an assessment of what your likely outcomes are, and how long it's likely to take. According to the American Bar Association, you should "beware of any lawyer who guarantees a big settlement or assures a victory in court."
The attorney will show you an engagement letter that outlines the terms of hiring the attorney, including fee and expenses. You will either agree to hire that attorney or not. If you don't like the attorney or if you simply want to continue interviewing attorneys, talk to someone else. You can always call back and say, "hey, we met last week and I did not hire you, but after checking around I think you're the best for the job, are you available to take the case?"
You should speak to more than one attorney before you hire one. You should not hire an attorney who treats you rudely or with disrespect in an intake interview. You should not hire an attorney who does not promptly respond to a request for information about their services. If more than one attorney tells you to go to a different county or tells you to drop it, you should strongly consider taking that advice.
Once you've hired an attorney, you should expect regular updates on the case. You should also expect prompt return calls from the office if not necessarily the attorney. You should respect the attorney's time, as your time should also be respected, and if your attorney asks for information or documents from you, don't delay in providing them.
If you really feel your attorney is not responsive, not respectful, or not advocating for you, tell your attorney. If you do not get an adequate response to that concern, start the process over, being sure to tell the new attorneys you call that you will be asking them to substitute into litigation already in progress.
Legal representation on a contingency fee basis
In some types of cases, attorneys are willing to handle matters on a "contingency basis." A contingency fee agreement can allow individuals who have been injured (e.g. damages resulting from an auto accident or medical malpractice) to obtain legal representation even if they do not have money to pay a lawyer at the outset of a case.
The American Bar Association describes a contingency fee as an arrangement where the lawyer gets paid for their services "only if the lawyer handles a case successfully," but "win or lose, you probably will have to pay court filing fees, the costs related to deposing witnesses, and similar charges." Any obligation to pay should be described in the written retainer agreement that you sign at the beginning of the case.
As a general rule, personal injury litigation, Workers' Compensation and SSI/SSDI appeals are frequently handled on a contingency basis, but commercial disputes rarely are. Most jurisdictions prohibit working for a contingency fee in family law or criminal cases, as suggested in Rule 1.5(d) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct by the American Bar Association.
Free or low-cost avenues for legal assistance
Legal Aid and Public Interest
The American Bar Association offers a directory of free and low-cost legal services for each state.
LawHelp.org and the Legal Services Corporation offer searchable directories of free services. LawHelp is a nonprofit organization that provides referrals to local legal aid and public interest law offices, as well as basic information about legal rights, court forms, self-help information, links to social service agencies and more in every state. Many states have legal aid programs that offer free telephone advice, legal clinics and representation for eligible clients.
Legal aid usually handles cases involving domestic violence, family law, housing, and public benefits (welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, SSI, or Social Security). Many legal aid offices may be able to handle other problems including immigration, consumer, and disability issues. Some legal aid offices focus on one area of law, such as disability law, or housing law.
If free (pro bono) legal services are not available, you may be referred to attorneys who take cases like yours at a reduced rate (low bono) through "Moderate Means" or "Modest Means" programs. You may also be able to obtain free legal services from a clinical program at a law school in your state. To find contact information for a law school's clinical program, find a law school near you and google its name and "clinical program." The American Bar Association also has a list of innovative programs that offer low-cost or free legal services.
Unbundled Legal Services
Unbundled legal services (also known as limited scope or discrete task representation) may be a more affordable option in states that allow attorneys to represent clients for only part of the case. When you interview attorneys, you can ask if they offer unbundled legal services, which may include representation at a mediation session, negotiation and drafting a settlement agreement, and limited court appearances.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can be an affordable option for many cases, and some attorneys may be willing to represent you in a mediation or other ADR session to help make sure your legal interests are protected. It can be helpful to consult with an attorney about whether ADR is an appropriate option for your case, and to obtain advice about how to protect your legal interests during the ADR process.
Another low-cost option for legal services is to hire an attorney only for advice and consultation, which can include assistance with court paperwork and advice on how to prepare for a court hearing. Many people represent themselves (pro se) in court, and some attorneys may offer consultations to assist clients with getting ready for court and making sure that court documents comply with local and state rules. In addition, the American Bar Association offers a directory of pro se resources for each state.
Many lawyers offer free first consultations as a way to bring business to their door, and will spend time going over your situation and options, without charge, to help you decide if you need to hire a lawyer. If you ask friends and acquaintances for attorney recommendations, mention the name of the friend or acquaintance - and your desire for a free first consultation - when you call.
The specific circumstances of your case may qualify you for additional free or low-cost legal assistance and services. The following is an overview of assistance and services that may be available due to the nature of your case:
Some organizations and law schools offer free or low-cost legal clinics for artists, including:
California: The Art & Entertainment Law Project law clinic of the Small Business Law Center at Thomas Jefferson School of Law provides free legal services for low-income artists, actors, dancers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and related non-profit organizations.
Colorado: The Artists’ and Inventors’ Legal Clinic offers pro bono and sliding scale fee legal services in all areas of artistic and inventive endeavor: movies, music, publishing, visual arts, fashion, industrial designs, prototyping, testing, financing, manufacturing, marketing, distribution.
Maryland: Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts offers a $5 Art Law Clinic.
New York: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts assists low income artists with arts-related legal issues.
Pennsylvania: Penn State Law School offers an Arts, Sports and Entertainment Law Clinic.
Tennessee: Vanderbilt Law School offers an Intellectual Property and the Arts Clinic.Washington: Washington Lawyers for the Arts sponsors legal clinics where artists and arts professionals can make 30-minute appointments with attorneys who specialize in arts and entertainment law.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) works to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States and offers a searchable directory of staffed offices in every state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico that can be contacted to request legal assistance.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) works to ensure that the civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are applied to cutting edge communication technologies, and offers information about how to request legal assistance.
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) offers an online directory of lawyers that can be searched by location and field of concentration, including the rights of workers, women, LGBTQ people, farmers, people with disabilities, those who seek actively to eliminate racism, and those who work to maintain and protect civil rights and liberties.
The National Crime Victim Bar Association offers an attorney referral service that refers crime victims to attorneys to help them with personal injury lawsuits. Crime victims can call 202-467-8716 or (844) 529-4357, or email email@example.com, or request an attorney referral through an online form.
According to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), there is a constitutional right to counsel if you are facing a possible sentence of jail or prison, even if you cannot afford to pay an attorney. To find a free criminal defense attorney, check the phone directory for a public defender office in your area, or call your local bar association, or ask the judge or other court or jail official in your case, or review the list of links maintained by NLADA to find a public defender office near you. If you are unable to find a defender through the phone directory, internet, bar association, or court, you can call or e-mail NLADA at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-452-0620.
The Innocence Network is an affiliation of organizations that provide pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes, and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions. A searchable member directory is available.
The Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) is a national nonprofit organization that provides legal services and referrals regarding disability rights, cancer, special education, and other disability-related legal issues. An online intake form is available, and the intake line can be reached at (213) 736-1334, or toll free at (866) 999-3752 (DRLC), by TTY (213) 736-8310, or video relay at (213) 908-1079.
The Disability Rights Bar Association (DRBA) has several resources for non-attorneys with disability discrimination concerns, including member profile pages. The DRBA cannot guarantee that a member will be able to assist you, but you can send an email to one of the members with your name, contact information, and a short statement of the issue for which you seek assistance. The DRBA also offers links to additional resources for legal assistance.
The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) maintains a directory of legally based advocacy organizations for each state and U.S. territory. The NDRN is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP) in every state and U.S. territory.
Disability Rights Advocates is a nonprofit organization that takes cases involving wide-spread systemic civil rights violations that affect a large group of people with disabilities, and maintains a list of legal resources for individuals (mostly based in California, but includes some national links).
Education-A-Must maintains a list of attorneys and advocates for children with special needs in education.
SSI / SSDI
For people experiencing or at risk of homelessness and considering an application for SSI or SSDI, there is a fast-track application process through the SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) program. Local legal aid organizations may be able to make a referral, or you can review the contact list for your state to find organizations with SOAR advocates.
For SSI/SSDI appeals, legal aid organizations may be able to represent eligible clients for free, and other attorneys may take cases on a contingency fee basis. Legal aid and other attorneys may be available to offer quick advice related to SSI/SSDI questions. The National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR) offers a lawyer referral service at 1-800-431-2804 and guidance about how to find a Social Security lawyer.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws require all state and local governmental entities, including the courts, to provide reasonable accommodations for the needs of persons with disabilities. Your court may have an ADA Coordinator to help with obtaining free services, such as equipment, devices, materials in alternative formats, and qualified interpreters or readers. Assistance with requests for a reasonable accommodation may also be available from a local disability rights advocacy organization.
According to information published by the Disability Rights Bar Association, the U.S. Department of Justice "allows you to file an ADA complaint against a State or local government or a public accommodation by mail or e-mail. The process is outlined, and frequently asked questions are answered on the ADA Government Fact Sheet How to File an ADA Complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice [ada.gov/fact_on_complaint.htm]. E-mail is preferred as all mail to the DOJ must go through an extensive screening process. If you have questions about filing an ADA complaint, you can call the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY)."
The ADA National Network offers confidential informal guidance on ADA issues at 1-800-949-4232 (toll free Voice or TTY), by email and at regional centers. "ADA Specialists can answer most questions immediately and, if necessary, will research complex questions to provide you the most thorough guidance possible. Referrals to local and state/territory resources for disability issues, which are not addressed by the ADA, can also be provided."
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers free, confidential one-on-one guidance on workplace accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related legislation, and self-employment and entrepreneurship options for people with disabilities. Assistance is available by phone at (800) 526-7234 (Voice), (877) 781-9403 (TTY), online via livechat, email, other methods, and en Español.
Anyone who is concerned for their safety or the safety of others because of a family member, partner, spouse, household member, etc., can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224, which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for confidential crisis intervention, safety planning, information and referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hotline operators are specially trained and can provide resources, help with options to stay safe or just listen. Local organizations may be able to help with finding free or low-cost legal assistance and may have legal advocates available to help with court paperwork and navigating the court process.
Womenslaw.org is a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence that offers a variety of resources, including an email hotline for questions about how to find help, legal information for every state and information about finding a lawyer for domestic violence cases.
Additional support resources and hotlines are listed at the MeFi Wiki ThereIsHelp page.
The U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) offers a searchable online directory of state and local Area Agencies on Aging and a telephone referral service at (800) 677-1116 for a variety of resources, including supportive and caretaker services, elder justice and health promotion programs.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) offers an online member directory that can be searched by location.
ImmigrationLawHelp.org is a searchable online directory of over 940 free or low-cost nonprofit immigration legal services providers in all 50 states. Users can search by state, county, or detention facility, and refine searches by types and areas of legal assistance provided, populations served, languages spoken, other areas of legal assistance, and non-legal services provided.
The Mexican government has created a 24-hour hotline (1-855-4636-395) to help answer questions for Mexicans in the United States. Consulates have also been distributing fliers detailing what to do if someone is approached by deportation agents — advising them to not open their doors without proof of a warrant nor speak to officers without a lawyer. (NYT, Feb 17 2017).
The Digital Media Law Project offers general information about finding legal help and operates the Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), a free (pro bono) legal referral service for prospective clients that meet the network's eligibility criteria.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers a Legal Defense Hotline at 1-800-336-4243 to journalists and media lawyers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Non-emergency requests or questions about services and publications are answered during normal office hours (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern).
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Legal Resource Service offers referrals to attorneys in the areas of law often needed by people with mental health conditions and can be reached by calling 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., ET, or by email at email@example.com. The NAMI HelpLine has volunteer attorneys and legal interns to help callers who need legal expertise or a referral to an attorney in their community, but does not provide individual casework, legal representation or other types of individual advocacy. To request a referral, call the NAMI HelpLine and ask to leave a message for the legal intern.
Additional support resources and hotlines are listed at the MeFi Wiki ThereIsHelp page.
According to the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), there are limited legal resources to assist student loan borrowers, but some options exist, including programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and ombudsman programs. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has published a warning about companies charging fees for student loan services that are offered for free by the government. Free government services include income-based repayment plans and ways to get out of default.
The American Bar Association offers legal information about a variety of issues, and an online directory that can be searched by location for military legal assistance offices, legal aid and pro bono organizations, lawyer referral and information services, and military-specific programs.
Statesidelegal.org is a nonprofit organization that offers legal help for military members, veterans and their families, including an online directory of free and fee-based legal assistance that can be searched by location.
Additional support resources and hotlines are listed at the MeFi Wiki ThereIsHelp page.
Examples of AskMe threads where "get a lawyer" is a response, legal and other resources are suggested, and MeFites help identify issues to raise with an attorney:
Consumer / Debt
Criminal / Traffic
Disability / Elder
Housing / Landlord/Tenant
Wills / Trusts
Background discussion about why "get a lawyer" is a popular response on AskMe threads:
If it's not answering the question, can it be deleted? - includes guidance from jessamyn for "get a lawyer" suggestions.
I am not your... Doctor, Therapist/Counselor, Attorney/Lawyer, Mechanic, Dentist, Veterinarian... - includes research from jedicus about disclaimers.
Get a Lawyer! Really, you need a lawyer! Hey, you might want to get a lawyer! - includes a comment from crush-onastick on how to find an attorney that is incorporated into this page.
The listing of an organization on this website does not constitute an endorsement of that group. This website and its contributors cannot guarantee the accuracy of information posted here or on any other website. This website and its contributors are not responsible for any legal advice, information, or assistance that you may obtain by using any of the organizations or websites listed or linked here. This website is for general information purposes only and is not legal advice1 for your specific situation. To obtain legal advice,2 you must get a lawyer.
1 Post 280882, AskMetaFilter Deleted Posts. "Sorry, but Ask Metafilter commenters cannot give legal advice." See Also Ask Metafilter "it is important to know that Ask MetaFilter is not a forum for providing medical or legal advice."
2 Rios, Sophia. “Lead Generation for BigLaw? The Business and Ethics of Providing Free Legal Tools and Information Online.” CodeX, April 1, 2015.