Free Child Custody Lawyers: What to Know Before Hiring a Pro Bono 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.

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. You can also seek pro bono support at a legal aid office, where a lawyer will voluntarily agree to take on your case for free.

What Is a Pro Bono Lawyer?

A pro bono lawyer offers 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, in the military, or have a special circumstance that makes it difficult to obtain legal counsel.

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.

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Do You Qualify for Pro Bono Legal Support?

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 towards 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, you can 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.

Does the Other Party Have an Attorney?

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. In a blog post about the benefits of hiring a lawyer for your child custody case, the Florida-based attorneys at Lopez & Humphries say working with a lawyer offers peace of mind knowing they have the expertise to present your case in the best light.

They are also trained negotiation experts, says Lopez & Humphries attorneys, writing, "According tо thе American Bar Association, less than 5% оf thеѕе types оf cases actually make it tо а judge. That's bесаuѕе іn thе majority оf cases, the parents make their оwn agreement before thеу end up at thе courthouse, usually thrоugh negotiations between themselves and their attorneys." 

Are You Comfortable with Your Attorney?

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, San Antonio, Texas-based attorney Joseph Hoelscher of Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC 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, who is also a member of the Pro Bono College of the State Bar of Texas.

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.

Is Your Attorney 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.

Have You Done Your Research?

Spend some 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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