chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is entitled to a free lawyer?
The Constitution guarantees free legal help for people who are charged with a crime which might lead to imprisonment and who cannot afford a lawyer. If you find yourself in this situation, request the appointment of a public defender when you first appear in court. When a court decides someone is "indigent" - with few assets and no funds to pay an attorney - generally either a private lawyer will be appointed by the court and paid with county funds, or a public defender program will be appointed to represent the person. Some public defender programs are permitted to charge an "application fee" from clients, though this is usually a small amount.

Who else qualifies for a free lawyer?
In non-criminal or "civil" cases, you do not have the right to a free lawyer. But there are many legal aid and pro bono programs that provide free legal help for the poor in civil cases. These programs generally help people whose income is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, although in some cases they help people whose income is slightly higher. (Look at the table below for the current income guidelines.) In addition, people who are elderly, disabled, the victims of domestic violence, enlisted in the military or in other special circumstances may be eligible for help even if their income is a little higher. Because these community-based programs often operate with very small budgets and don't have enough resources to serve all eligible people, they handle only certain types of cases and must turn away many people who ask for help.

Legal Services Corporation 2019 Income Guidelines *

Size of household

48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia



* The figures in this table represent 125% of the poverty guidelines by household size as determined by the Department of Health and Human Services.

































For each additional member of the household in excess of 8, add:





What is a legal service/legal aid office?
Legal services offices, also called legal aid offices, employ staff lawyers to provide legal help to poor clients. The lawyers are usually experts in the types of problems that poor clients most often encounter. See our link to the Legal Services Corporation directory of legal aid programs in your state.

What is a pro bono program?
Pro bono programs help low-income people find volunteer lawyers who are willing to handle their cases for free. These programs usually are sponsored by state or local bar associations. See our directory of pro bono programs to find one in your state.

What do I do if I can't get free legal help?
If you can't find help from a legal aid or pro bono program, some alternatives include contacting a lawyer referral service (some may be able to refer you to a low-fee lawyer) or hiring a lawyer for only part of the legal work and doing other parts yourself (this is known as "unbundled" legal services). You can also try to get legal information and try to handle the legal issue yourself. Please visit our section on other free resources for more information.

What is a lawyer referral service?
Many state and local bar associations offer public service-oriented lawyer referral services. These services will interview clients and help identify the problems a lawyer could help them with. If a lawyer can help with your problem, the service will provide you with a referral to a lawyer. If the problem does not require a lawyer, the service will provide information on other organizations in your community that may be able to help.

The ABA sets high standards for quality lawyer referral services. Those that meet our standards use a special logo that says "Meets ABA Standards for Lawyer Referral.” See our page listing lawyer referral services in your state.

Can I hire a lawyer for only part of my legal matter?
If you decide you need legal help with a part of your legal problem, consider hiring a lawyer to work only on that part. Some lawyers "unbundle" their services and provide help with just a portion of your case. You can ask a lawyer referral organization to help you locate a lawyer who will provide unbundled services.

How do you know if a lawyer is licensed?
Lawyers are licensed by a state agency in each state. You should contact the appropriate state agency to find out if a person has a law license and is permitted to practice in a particular state. Please see the page on lawyer licensing for more information.