What You Need to Know About a Pro Bono Attorney

Free Lawyers for Single Mothers and Fathers

USA, New York, New York City, Businesswoman and clients shaking hands in office
Tetra Images/Getty Images

A parent who cannot afford a private attorney may benefit from the services of a pro bono attorney who will work for free. Many large firms expect their attorneys to volunteer a number of pro bono hours on an annual basis. Attorneys generally choose their pro bono projects based on their interests, so it's important that you find one interested in working on a case like yours.

Before you agree to be represented by a pro bono attorney, there are a few things to consider.

Can You Afford a Private Attorney?

Legal fees in a child custody matter can be extensive. An attorney will expect to be paid hourly and will likely expect a significant retainer (a down payment towards legal fees incurred). Parents who cannot afford a private attorney, have two main options: represent yourself (pro se, in legal terms) or request services from a pro bono attorney.

Does the Other Party Have an Attorney?

One time when it is probably best to get an attorney of your own is if the other party is represented by counsel. This can be viewed as "leveling the playing field" and it can make a big difference in court.

Pro bono attorneys are a great alternative to private attorneys because they are free to the client. At the same time, they can articulate their client's needs in court, instead of a client having to do it themselves.

Are You Completely Comfortable With the Attorney?

When choosing an attorney, it is extremely important that you are comfortable working with them.

Due to the nature of pro bono services (i.e. unpaid), some parents might think about compromising their own ideas and strategy for the custody matter in favor of the attorney's free services.

However, you should be comfortable enough with an attorney to speak up and engage in an even exchange. It should be no different than any other lawyer and client relationship.

Are They 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 that any pro bono attorney has some familiarity with family law procedure. The goal is for the attorney to be well-prepared so there are no surprises in court.

Tips for Choosing a Pro Bono Attorney

Working with a pro bono attorney may be a great option for some parents, though it is a decision that should not be made lightly. It's a good idea to spend some time researching any attorney and familiarize yourself with how the courts work.

  • Interview all prospective attorneys and inquire about the success of cases similar to yours that they've represented in the past.
  • Attend a court proceeding in advance to get a feel for court procedures.
  • Talk to other parents about their experiences with pro bono attorneys.

An attorney in your state can also help you decide whether or not you can handle the case with the assistance of a pro bono attorney. As a non-adversarial alternative to a court proceeding, parents can also consider mediation or arbitration.