What to Know Before Hiring a Pro Bono Family Lawyer

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A legal battle for custody of your children can be an overwhelming and frightening experience. Even more so if money is tight. However, even if your finances can't support expensive legal representation, affordable options are available, and for some people, free lawyers for child custody cases may be one of them.

What Is a Pro Bono Lawyer?

A pro bono lawyer offers legal services for free or at a greatly reduced cost. Typically, people with very low incomes qualify as well as those who are disabled, victims of domestic violence, elderly, or in the military.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), affordable legal representation and support may be possible through your nearest legal aid office, which are not-for-profit agencies that, to those who meet the income requirement, offer financial support toward legal problems. We spoke with award-winning attorney Joseph Hoelscher to get his expert insight on what to expect when seeking pro bono representation.

Meet the Expert

Joseph Hoelscher of Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC, is a child protection and family law trial lawyer, legal scholar, and author. He is also a member of the Pro Bono College of the State Bar of Texas.

If you're looking for free child custody lawyers and are thinking of hiring a pro bono attorney, here are five things to consider beforehand.

Consider Your Financial Position

Legal fees in a child custody matter can be extremely expensive. An attorney will expect to be paid hourly and will likely also require a significant retainer (a down payment toward legal fees incurred) to support your case. Parents who cannot afford a private attorney have two main options: Represent yourself, otherwise known as pro se in legal terms. Or, granted you meet the pro bono program's income requirements, request services from a pro bono attorney.

Find resources on how to go about pro se representation by searching your state government's website in the self-help resources section.

Know What You're Up Against

If you know the person you're going up against in court has secured legal representation, it's probably best to hire a lawyer rather than represent yourself. Working with a qualified member for the bar not only opens you up to their trial expertise and knowledge of the inner workings of the legal system but also offers you peace of mind knowing that your case is in good hands. Even if your case never makes it to trial (as a very small percentage of custody cases do), their training and experience in negotiation will prove to be a valuable asset in coming to an agreement with the opposition.

Find an Attorney You're Comfortable With

When selecting an attorney, it is extremely important that you are comfortable working with them. Due to the nature of pro bono services, some parents might think about compromising their own ideas or strategies for the custody matter in favor of the attorney's free services.

While you do have the option to decline a lawyer's representation, Hoelscher explains that requesting new representation may prolong your case. "In most child custody cases, clients are not entitled to free legal representation, so they may not get a new lawyer or may need to wait. Also, lawyers are typically required to go through a formal process of withdrawing, which may take some time and require a judge's approval," says Hoelscher.

Lawyers are obligated to give clients honest, correct advice up until their representation has formally ended, including help transferring cases to new lawyers.

That said, the most efficient way to request a different lawyer is to go back to the agency or organization that helped you obtain pro bono services, says Hoelscher, or if your lawyer was appointed by the court, to make the request through the court. Do know, however, that "lawyers are obligated to give clients honest, correct advice up until their representation has formally ended, including help transferring cases to new lawyers," Hoelscher says.

Ensure Your Attorney Is Familiar With Family Law

Corporate law departments generally sponsor and support pro bono programs. Therefore, you may find an attorney who normally practices corporate law, but decides to work on a family law project on the side. Although there's nothing wrong with this scenario, it's important to make sure that your lawyer is familiar with family law procedures to avoid surprises in court. Additionally, if you seek counsel from a legal aid office, you'll want to be equally sure that whoever is representing you is the right person for the job by checking up on their experience. In other words, it is totally acceptable to ask your potential lawyer how familiar they are with family law.

Do Your Research

Spend time researching your attorney and familiarizing yourself with how the courts work before you hire someone. One place to start is through Free Legal Answers, a service provided by the ABA that offers brief yet free legal advice.

The reality is pro bono resources are limited, says Hoelscher. Pro bono clients who make their lawyer's job easier often receive better service than clients who are overly demanding or uncooperative. That said, to make the most of your volunteer lawyer's expertise, "Pro bono clients should be respectful of the lawyers time by scheduling calls, having a list of things to talk about and sticking to the important points, and giving the lawyer well-organized materials the lawyer needs quickly," says Hoelscher.

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