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Former Legal Aid Lawyer Gets Surprisingly Candid About Free and Low-Cost Legal Services

A Lawyer's Candid Take On Unbundled Legal Services, Pro Bono Attorneys, Prepaid Legal, Legal Aid, and Free Legal Advice Online

· Low-Value Claims,Prepaid Legal,Legal Aid,Pro Bono Attorney,Free Legal Advice

Warning: this is a monster post that took me several weeks to research and write.

But...if you're looking for free or low-cost legal help, I've included tools, data, and explanations that should help you find what you need quicker--and to also steer clear of weird internet pitfalls like the "ask a lawyer" forums (which I also explain in this article).

As both a former legal aid attorney and low-cost attorney in private practice, I can tell you that I've not seen a more comprehensive piece on this topic--so after fielding many of these questions hundreds of times over the years, I finally decided to write it all down in a single place--which I've organized into 5 five parts. I hope it helps!

Part 1

Legal Aid

Getting a free lawyer from legal aid is like hitting the lottery.

You first have to be poor enough to qualify at all--let's call this obtaining a lottery ticket. Then, you have to be in dire enough need to even have your case considered.

cheap lawyer

Once considered, your case might be picked up by a lawyer who happens to have bandwidth to spare, but if and only if your case and profile (as a client) match the mission of the particular legal aid organization and the specific competency and area of experience of the particular lawyer who has the bandwidth to spare.

That's a lot of ifs. So, odds are: your case won't be handled by legal aid. The fact is that...

Legal aid cannot help every poor person with a legal need.

...and legal aid generally cannot help you at all if you are not legally considered to be poor.

To say that something is "like winning the lottery" is to say that it's unlikely to happen. But even so, most lotteries release actual data on the odds of winning. So, I'll do the same for legal aid so you can see for yourself. I'll use legal aid in Chicago as my example.

Millions of Americans are eligible for free legal aid.

Are you one of them? 📲

⚡️ Try our FREE eligibility-check tool now.

Having the right knowledge can make you unstoppable when you're trying to win a legal case. You already know this, and that's why you're looking for a free lawyer to help you. But, the problem is that, if this is your first time trying to use legal aid, then your unfamiliarity with legal aid's eligibility requirements can actually stop you before you ever get started, and someone else might simply beat you to the spot before you finally figure out if you're eligible.

That's why wasting time searching Google is not only annoying, but potentially detrimental for your legal case. Don’t let your unfamiliarity hold you back from getting the free legal help you need.

Stats from legal aid in Chicago (Cook County)...

Below, I've provided both the hard numbers and attendant explanations for each stat, and I created a quick chart to show this visually--you'll find that below my explanations.

Also, so that these stats serve a dual purpose by also answering any questions you have about how you might be able to get legal aid, I've matched each stat with a question I was frequently asked why I was a legal aid attorney. Hopefully this saves you some time.

Who is eligible for legal aid in Chicago?

About 25% of people in Cook County—which is about 1.2 million people—qualify for legal aid, by virtue of those people being "poor enough."


How can you get legal help with no money?

If you have no money and legal help, it's possible that legal aid could help you, but the most probable outcome is that legal aid will not be able to help you, even if you are exactly whom legal aid was deigned to help. Why? Many studies have shown that, on average, in the US (not just in Chicago), about half of the people who qualify for legal aid will have a legal need over the course of a given year. The data from legal aid in Chicago confirms this average: about 600,000 low-income people will have a legal need in Cook County this year. So, the first reason is that there are just too many people demanding free legal help and not enough pro bono attorneys to meet all of those needs.


Can you get legal aid?

Again, the answer is maybe, but probably not. Only about 75% of people who qualify for legal aid can actually get free legal help; because fewer than half of the people who need legal help will be able to get it, all due to a shortage of pro bono and legal aid resources. So even if you're "poor enough" in Chicago to qualify for free legal help, you have a much better chance of flipping a coin and getting heads than you do getting legal aid.


Who can you call for free legal advice?

The odds are a little bit better if all you need is free legal advice, but they're still not good. As an example, in Chicago, there is something called the CARPLS ("Cook County legal aid hotline). CARPLS is able to respond to just over 50% of the more than 100,000 calls received last year due to the large volume of calls and limited resources. While 50% odds might not strike you as good, remember that, in the world of free legal services, these are actually decent odds--in the "this is as good as you can hope for" sense--especially if you consider the fact that legal aid has no way to screen callers until after you call the hotline, which means that you can call in and ask for free legal advice even if you're not technically poor. However, if the person answering the phone is doing his job correctly, then he will screen out non-poor people, and quickly, to make room for the next wave of callers.

does legal aid work

Those are the "boots on the ground" statistics from legal aid in Chicago (which I think are fairly representative of legal aid statistics nationally). But you can also see the downstream effect of these legal aid stats in courts all over the country.

Attorney Mary Juetten compiled the following national stats:

  • More than 60 million Americans live at or below 125% of the federal poverty level.
  • 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem.
  • ...and 25% of those same households experienced more than six civil legal problems annually.
  • States consistently report that 80% of their citizens cannot afford an attorney for civil matters, including family law.
  • Many low-income households face more than one problem per year, in some cases up to nine issues.

She further illuminates the fact there are large swaths of the population who are not even considered in most of the access-to-justice studies--small businesses, for example...

​"To compound matters, legal technology conferences and discussions often focus on solutions for in-house counsel at large companies. This audience does not include the nearly 29 million small businesses in America let alone the millions of individuals searching for justice. We seem to have too much law for those who can pay and not enough law for those who cannot."

On that note, let me digress for just a moment.

Brief digression...

I'll come back to this point in part 2 of this article, and, as you'll see, I became particularly interested during my law career in the four types of oft-neglected "little guys" in these studies:

  1. People who are not poor--so, middle-class and above.
  2. Small businesses.
  3. Freelance professionals in various industries.
  4. Professional services providers (accountants, doctors, lawyers, etc.).

As weird as it might strike you at first--particularly because I've included some attorneys in this disadvantaged group--each of the four types of entities I've listed above face significant access-to-justice problems (yet virtually no access-to-justice studies cover them).

In some instances, this is truly because the cost of the legal services needed exceeds their ability to pay for them: their perfectly solvent, but their cash-flow is not thick enough to easily absorb surprise legal expenses. This puts them at a legal disadvantage when they face those legal issues. In other instances, it's because the cost of the legal services needed are too high relative to the stakes of the case. I call this the "low-value claim problem," and it's what eventually led me to Veeto.

Anyway, I'll get back that later in the article...

A recent national study looked at how many parties to a lawsuit are represented by an attorney in court.

The study concluded that at least one party is unrepresented in 3 out of 4 civil cases. Why are so many people not represented by lawyers in court? According to the ABA: "Courts continue to see large numbers of self-represented litigants, in most cases because they cannot afford or access legal counsel." At its core, this is an affordability issue, but, implicitly, it's also then legal aid's inability to muster sufficient resources to close that gap.

To illustrate this once again, though, with localized data, here is a chart of attorney representation for landlord-tenant cases in New York, in which eviction was at issue:

legal aid new york

So you can see that this court stat (75% of parties to a lawsuit not being represented in court by an attorney) maps pretty tightly with the legal aid stat (75% of people who qualify for legal aid will not get it). If obtaining a free lawyer through legal aid were easy, you would not see this many unrepresented people--particularly in cases in which the subject matter implies the defendant's inability to pay a bill (which is a symptom of being poor).

It's thus widely accepted that legal aid today, given its level of funding and the small number of attorneys participating pro bono (relative to demand), is in sufficient to effectively meet the needs of people looking for free or low-cost legal services.

Years ago, I was a legal aid attorney in my area.

I provided free legal help to poor people who could not afford to hire a lawyer. Helping low-income people with their legal problems was quite rewarding, as most lawyers who have ever worked pro bono would also probably tell you. Indeed, I will go even further to say that providing free legal services to disadvantaged people, who would otherwise have no access to justice, has been one of the most satisfying parts of my law career.

What bugged me about legal aid, though, was just how many people the eligibility requirements did not permit me to help. Some of those people I had to turn away were, on one hand, poor enough to qualify for legal aid; but, on the other hand, they did not have high-enough-priority cases, relative to whatever other cases we had in the pipeline at that time. (This is my anecdotal version of the same stats we've already seen.)

Here is a sample conversation I often either had or overheard while at legal aid:

CALLER: "I'm trying to figure out how to get legal aid for two legal issues I have. 

I already know that I qualify for legal aid, because I've done the legal aid intake forms. Legal aid told me that I qualify by virtue of my low income (for my area). 

The problem, though, is that they refuse to help me "because it's not an emergency." They suggested instead that I try to get a referral from the state bar to a so-called "low-cost attorney." 

So I did the bar-referral thing and got referred to a different low-cost legal assistance organization in my town (in Massachusetts). But they want 50 bucks an hour to handle my case, and I don't have 50 dollars an hour." 

I have researched the legal processes for what I need done for my two cases, and I feel as though I understand what needs to be done. But on the other hand, I will have only one shot at what I need to do, and I don't want to screw that up. 

How do I find help?"

The unfortunate fact is that what this caller had already determined is that the "traditional" free/low-cost legal services were not able to help him--one on account of bandwidth and the other on account of prohibitively high cost. So the attorney who answered phone would something like...

ATTORNEY: "You're not going to like this answer, but it sounds like you've already done what you can do by checking with each of the pro bono resources in your area.  

Because (free) legal aid said that they could not help you, you only have four remaining option: (1) ignore your rights under the case (in other words, do nothing); (2) represent yourself (even though you said that this is something you're worried about given the stakes of the cases); (3) try to find a so-called "discount" lawyer, which it sounds you have already tried and struck out with; (4) figure out how to scrounge together enough cash to hire a normal-rate attorney, but obviously, if you can't afford $50/hour, then you probably could not afford more than that. 

There's a fifth option I'll mention, but I should be clear that you have only a remote chance of lining this one up. You could try to find a lawyer to handle your case pro bono, but that's like winning the lottery. While it's possible, it's also highly unlikely. 

A sixth, but also remote option, would be to find an attorney who will take it on a contingency. But an attorney who takes your case on a contingency basis would not so for charity. Rather, he/she would only do it if the potential reward of winning your case were large enough for the attorney to be compensated out of the award without you having to pay anything out of pocket. Again, the possibility of this option entirely depends on which types of cases you have and what the potential award might be for winning.


As you've already discovered firsthand, the reality is that being poor isn't enough to get help from legal aid, because there is an "oversupply" of people like you who cannot afford legal representation and an "under-supply" of attorneys willing and able to help for free. This is why legal aid must prioritize "emergency" cases which require urgent help to prevent serious harm."

To the extent that feelings are facts, and that they matter when assessing a problem, I can tell you that the whole legal aid system felt very much like a real-life "lifeboat problem" (in terms of resources, not cannibalism). You certainly celebrate the times you're able to help someone, but that elation is quickly weighed down when you recall all of the people you had to turn away.

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Who qualifies for free legal aid?

The short answer is that, if you're not poor, then you almost certainly don't qualify for any sort of help from legal aid, including free legal advice. But being poor is merely a necessary condition. It's not sufficient by itself.

This was, as I already stated above, the biggest rub for me as a legal aid lawyer: the eligibility guidelines, which limited who qualified for a free attorney and, thus, whom I could help or even give free legal advice to. There were so many people I could not help because either they were not eligible or their case was not the type that legal aid was constituted to handle--or they did not "need the help badly enough," relative to the other people who needed legal aid. Let me break that down for you.

Some people are legally "entitled" to a free attorney, while others are merely "eligible." There are broadly two "tracks" for to receive free legal help: criminal and civil.

In general, priority at legal aid maps pretty closely to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

So, for example, a poor person who needs a protective order against a physically abusive partner (safety) might command a higher priority than a poor person whose rights under The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act are being violated by an unscrupulous debt collector (esteem or self-actualization, depending on the circumstances).

legal aid lawyers

Although pro bono work and legal aid are two of the most prominent ways that lawyers have tried to close known, access-to-justice gaps, they each suffer from a basic scarcity problem. Because our legal aid office did not have enough free attorneys to handle all of the case requests we received, we simply had to say yes to some people and no to others--even if they technically qualified for free legal help and met all of the other requirements.

Like that scene at the end of Titanic, in which the ship has capsized and hundreds of passengers are fighting to for a spot on the dozen or so pieces floating scraps of wood, at the point when the piece becomes overburdened, you have to start kicking people off just to keep everyone else alive. That's how it felt to be, and it was brutal.

If you spend even 10 minutes perusing any of the statistics on legal aid, unmet legal needs, and access-to-justice, you will find that this problem is basically the norm everywhere. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 statistics on poverty...

  • 63 million Americans—one in five—qualified for free civil legal assistance such as legal aid.
  • But more than 50% of those seeking help are turned away because of the limited resources allocated for providing free legal help.
  • These statistics describe only those below the poverty line and do not reflect the tens of millions of moderate-income Americans (the so-called "middle-class") who also cannot afford legal help. The stats on this group are much simpler: basically 0% of this group receives free legal assistance through legal aid because they simply aren't poor enough to meet the eligibility requirements.
  • What's true for moderate-income 
  • people is also true for businesses: legal aid cannot help them at all.

Let's dig a bit deeper into the question of who is eligible for legal aid.

It's actually shocking to me how many people--including many lawyers--don't know exactly how inadequate legal aid is for meeting the legal needs of only the poor. According to the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Service Providers, three-fourths of the civil legal needs of poor people remain unmet. So when a poor person takes to Google and searches for free online legal advice or pro bono attorneys, it truly is like plopping down a dollar for a lottery ticket: even if you somehow figure out how to wade through all of the useless ads and irrelevant search results, and also manage to qualify for legal aid's limited eligibility requirements, you have, at best, a 50% chance of getting a legal aid lawyer to help you for free--or at all.

"The 2017 Justice Gap Report of the Legal Services Corporation found that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. Legal services programs, with their limited resources, are able to provide assistance in only half of the matters brought to them. So the justice gap is real."

—Hilarie Bass, former ABA President

Categorically, though, there were other types of requests to which we always had to say no, and this is where I got the idea to leave legal aid and found an "affordable" law firm aimed at helping those types of people. In particular, I focused on two types of clients:

  1. Middle-class people, whose income disqualified them from legal aid eligibility outright.
  2. Businesses in general, for whom there are little to no free or low-cost options for legal help.

The truly terrible part began when I left legal aid and founded a low-cost law firm aimed at helping people "caught in the middle." My thesis was that those "caught in the middle" included both consumers and businesses. While I was a legal aid lawyer, I saw this firsthand almost every single day. But it's also a well-documented problem, particularly on the consumer side. According to the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Service Providers...

  • three-fourths of the civil legal needs of poor people remain unmet
  • up to three-fifths of the needs of middle-income people remain unmet
  • the majority of middle-income people do not receive needed legal help

which is a characterization I will spend basically this entire article unpacking. But for the purpose of getting to the point, as it were, and just stating simply what sucked so bad about providing low-cost legal services, I can summarize it as follows:

  • legal services are very hard for non-lawyers to value and compare, one to another.
  • so price ends up being an important heuristic for how most non-lawyers perceive the value of one lawyer's services versus another.
  • when you set up a law firm that is by design, cheaper than the services of other law firms, many people perceive you as something akin to the Walmart of legal services.

So that's a summary, on which I will expound later, and include details on each of the consequences that followed from this dumb mistake. But in short, it's just that: you don't want to be the Walmart of legal services.

Again, while this bugged me, it was still not even the "terrible" part. I'll get to that later, but first I need to give you some context about how I became a low-cost lawyer and the opinions on the legal market that I developed along the way.

Here's a quick chart I drew to illustrate what I first saw at legal aid, and also later in my career when I founded a low-cost law firm with the word "affordable" in the name:

pro bono lawyers

I'll explain everything shown in the chart later in this article, but for now, just notice the y-axis and the x-axis. The y-axis plots the stakes of a given case, while the x-axis plots the client's ability to pay for a lawyer. On the y-axis, the higher you go, the higher the stakes, and on the x-axis, the further right you go, the higher the ability to pay.

There are so many insights to draw from this chart, and I'll expound on four of them in the remainder of this article.

One of the things this chart illustrates is what the American Bar Association calls the "middle-class dilemma."

The traditional view of this dilemma is that it is a problem borne exclusively by people who make too much money to qualify for legal aid but not enough to afford an attorney's hourly rate. You can see this in the illustration in that legal aid does not even touch quadrant D.

The traditional view is correct that middle-class people receive virtually no help from legal aid organisations. As of 2014, 63 million Americans—one in five—qualified for free civil legal assistance (such as legal aid). But more than 50 percent of those seeking help are turned away because of the limited resources allocated for providing free legal help. These statistics describe only those below the poverty line and do not reflect the tens of millions of moderate income Americans (the so-called "middle-class") who also cannot afford legal help. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 statistics on poverty.)

The building blocks of this dilemma are something like this:

  • People at almost all income levels have unmet legal needs.
  • So various elements of the legal industry and justice system have pooled resources together in organizations such as legal aid to meet some of these legal needs.
  • But those resources are scarce, to the extent that most unmet legal needs cannot actually be met by these legal aid organizations.
  • So legal aid organizations must limit who they help, so that resources are allocated to those most "in need."
  • The way that "in need" has been ranked maps most closely to income-level, such that poor people tend to meet the income eligibility requirement for legal aid.
  • But even that's not enough of a limitation, because the available resources cannot even help all of the legal needs of poor people.

(Note that the terms "legal services" and "legal aid" often have the same or similar meanings.)

So, with many poor people shut out from free legal help, basically all middle-class and higher-income people are as well. This is the traditional view of the "middle-class dilemma."

In rhetoric, this view limits the problem to consumers and consumer households, and it also explains as middle-income people's inability to pay. I disagree with both of those limitations, as I will explain later in this article--and this is important for you to understand if you are looking for a low-cost lawyer right now but are not actually read on.

Now, I will explain later in this article why my experience led me to a slightly different conclusion than that of this "traditional view." But first let me direct your attention back to the chart so that I can further define its dimensions and quadrants.

I'll define stakes of case as total dollars you stand to win or lose in a case, or, as in many criminal cases, the possibility of losing some or all of your liberty (getting thrown in jail). In the case of potential loss of liberty, I ranked that higher than any dollar-value on this chart, which is why you see criminal matters plotted higher on the y-axis than civil matters.

I'll define ability to pay as the client's discretionary purchase-power. Importantly, I'm defining ability to pay in absolute terms rather than relative to the value of (or "stakes") of the case; for a measure of purchase-power relative to the stakes of the case, I might have alternatively used something like willingness to pay, stipulating that a client's willingness has less to do with whim than with rational calculations of cost-vs-benefit and risk-adjusted return (which is a measure you may already know understand if you've ever heard the phrase "the juice is not worth the squeeze").

Notice that I've placed legal aid exclusively on the lower-end of ability to pay. That's because most legal aid organizations only help people who fall below some specified percentage of the poverty line. Let list out some "model" income requirements as an example.

Who qualifies for a free lawyer?

Most of our cases involved domestic violence, family law, housing, and public benefits. But in addition, because we were not funded by federal dollars, we had leeway to also handle cases involving immigration, consumer rights, and disability law (many legal aid offices do not have as much discretion by virtue of accepting federal dollars).

In a typical week, we would have fielded hundreds of phone calls from people looking for free legal advice and needing a range of free legal services:

  • A woman who needed a legal aid lawyer to help her obtain a protective order against her abusive husband.
  • A spouse who needed a free divorce lawyer to also help him/her obtain a child custody order.
  • A tenant who needed to stay an eviction, or a homeowner who need to stop a foreclosure.
  • A family who needed a free consultation with an immigration lawyer to prevent a parent's deportation.

It might surprise you to know that the majority of these callers did not turn out to be eligible for free legal

Family law– if you have a child custody or divorce case, legal aid may be able to help. Call your local legal aid office or ask the Judge in your case to appoint a legal aid lawyer to represent you in court.

Housing– if you are being evicted from your home or if your house is in foreclosure, legal aid may be able to help.

Public Benefits– if you have a problem with welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Social Security, legal aid may be able to help.


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. Some legal aid offices get funding from the government and that may limit the kind of cases they can take.

I once founded a low-cost legal services law firm that even had the word "affordable" in the name--it turned out to be a huge mistake.

As I'll expound on later in this article, my intention in founding the firm was to provide cheap, unbundled legal help to freelancers, executives and small businesses who had (what I called) "low-value claim" legal issues. Some common examples of low-value claim issues included...

But first, --and I'm not even exaggerating when I say that my experience

How did I get there, and why was my experience there terrible? Prior to founding my firm, Because that experience as a legal aid lawyer was a big part what influenced me to start my own low-cost law firm, it's important that you know what legal aid is, who it helps, and how it fits into the overall market for legal services.

Legal aid is one of several People would contact us looking for pro bono lawyers and free legal advice. explain you something about who is eligible for Legal Aid.

If you cannot afford a lawyer, legal aid may be able to help you:

There are legal aid offices (also called legal services) throughout the United States. Legal aid offices are not-for-profit agencies that provide free legal help to people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. While many legal aid offices only help people with very low incomes, some offices have more flexible income rules.

Legal aid usually handles cases involving:

Domestic violence– if your partner is abusing you, legal aid can help you obtain a protective order, a child custody order and divorce.

Family law– if you have a child custody or divorce case, legal aid may be able to help. Call your local legal aid office or ask the Judge in your case to appoint a legal aid lawyer to represent you in court.

Housing– if you are being evicted from your home or if your house is in foreclosure, legal aid may be able to help.

Public Benefits– if you have a problem with welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Social Security, legal aid may be able to help.


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. Some legal aid offices get funding from the government and that may limit the kind of cases they can take.

I'm going to start this article by giving you a little more context on how and why I came to be a so-called "cheap lawyer," so that was terrible, let me give you some background on my law career.

I wrote this article to explain what was so bad about it from low-cost lawyer's perspective.. I believe that if I can do a good job explaining to you why my experience was terrible, you'll not only be better informed in general by having the lawyer's perspective on

I owned my own unbundled firm with the word "affordable" in the firm name. I was a former Legal Aid attorney, and it was conceptualized as a "gaps legal service;" it filled in the gap between those that didn't qualify for Legal Aid, and those that couldn't do $200 an hour. It was a horrendous experience.

Despite the fact I was working in one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest states, people outright hated my business model. As a "cut rate" lawyer, I received no respect. There were four types of clients:

1) Those that couldn't afford my legal fees.

2) Those that couldn't afford my legal fees, and begged for them to be even lower.

3) Those that intentionally misrepresented their case, so as to get a lower flat fee quote.

4) Those that could afford my services, and those of a full price attorney. They ALWAYS went with the full price guy.

After all, if your freedom or custody of you kids is on the line, why take the chance to save a coupe of bucks? If someone pull together $500 for me, they can pull together $1500 for someone else. Because I had so few clients, I worked harder and longer on my cases, as I had nothing else to do. Despite my superior work and 1/3 fees, people fucking hated it.

I'd be interested to hear the stories of any other low cost legal service providers.

How do lawyers get paid?

In terms of pricing model, there are generally three ways that attorneys get paid:

  1. Hourly rate, which usually begins with you having to pay some upfront retainer amount. 
  2. Contingency fee, whereby the lawyer gets paid from the proceeds of winning your case.
  3. Fixed-fee, which you tend to only find for (what lawyers call) "transactional" legal work such as drafting a will or helping you incorporate a new company, for example.

There is a fourth option, though, and it's when an attorney agrees to work "pro bono" on your case.

How do pro bono lawyers get paid?

Pro bono lawyers generally do not get paid for the work they do on your case (the term "pro bono" roughly translates from Latin as "for the public good"). To answer this question, it's important to frame the answer around this idea that money is not the only currency.

The hardest part of doing your own legal work is knowing what to Google.

The same is true when you're looking for a low-cost lawyer to hire. This is for two logical reasons:

  1. The search results Google returns might not be specific enough to the problem you're trying to solve, or the question you're trying to answer, even if they 
  2. are relevant to the query your searched for: "free legal advice."


  1. Google's search results are ranked not by the extent to which they actually helped people solve a problem or answer a question in the past, but, rather, to the extent that people clicked on a given result and interacted with its content.

Plus, if you consider the specific context of wanting to find a pro bono lawyer to handle your case, then you should realize that lawyers working for free have less incentive to advertise and be found on Google than lawyers who stand to make money.

This is precisely why a good, word-of-mouth attorney referral can be super helpful--because you don't have to wade through murky online search results that might not even fit what you're looking for.

For the same reasons, this also why understanding exactly how the legal market works--and how, for example, pro bono lawyers get paid--is vital when you

If your strategy for finding someone to handle your case at low cost or give you free legal advice

Lawyers who work pro bono symptomize the inefficiency of the legal market.

Here, I use the term inefficiency in the economic sense.

Before Dan Ariely and the so-called behavioral science of present day, human behavior in

When I was in college, I took an anthropology course taught by a professor who had spent most of his academic career researching various cultures in South America. One of these cultures was in a poor, remote part of Bolivia. There, he said, the most important currency was reciprocity, and he explained why.

The main industry there was small-plot agriculture, in which every task is still done mostly by hand and the most advanced piece of equipment most farmers have is a donkey. You don't see tractors in this area, because people simply cannot afford to buy them. This is a problem come harvest time. If you're growing a crop that has to be harvested all at once, one person simply cannot do it by hand.

The solution to this problem has long been reciprocity. It's how a one-man farm operation can do the work of large farm machines or a large labor force: neighbors just show up on harvest day, work side-by-side until the crop has been fully harvested, and no one expects to get paid for the labor. Instead, each farmer spends the entire harvest season reciprocating their neighbors' good deed by showing and working for free on harvest day.

Anthropologists call this a "social transaction," which distinguishes it from "economic transactions" in which money is exchanged for goods or services. The reason I start with this story is because one of the most common questions people ask about lawyers who work for free is...

Add a heading here.

Why lawyers sometimes work for free?

In the 2008 Batman movie Dark KNoght

If you've ever taken an economics course, then you might be trained to be suspicious when anyone offers to do anything for you either for free or at a deep discount. Because "there's no such thing as free lunch," as you learned in econ 101.

So you might wonder why an attorney would ever do legal work for you for free (which attorneys call "pro bono" work). What's the catch?

The short answer is: no, usually lawyers do not get paid for (what is called) "pro bono" work.

Understanding "The Low-Value Claim Problem" That We Designed Veeto To Solve

And how this problem probably costs you thousands of dollars per year.

When we first started writing the Veeto Blog, we named it "Nothing But Teeth." Why?

Here is the story behind it.

"Sociability is just a big smile and a big smile is nothing but teeth." —Jack Kerouac

We like big ideas, even if they hurt. Jack Kerouac knew what that meant. Contrary to whatever positive connotations we assign to the phrase "big idea," big ideas are not always solutions--just as, for Kerouac, a person's smile does not tell you what he is really thinking.

Jack did not think too highly of being nice for the sake of social grace, and neither do we.

Veeto Is In The Business Of Putting Bad Companies Over Our Knee

It is not a smiley line of work. We do not have the luxury of always being able to form our words with friendly faces, because they are most often fighting words. For us and our faces, the only smiles cracked happen when we win. And when we win, the company we beat does not smile.

So there is that.

And there is this. Someone has to stand up to the bad guys, and we decided three years ago to fight that fight, for everyone. To fight this fight--and to win--it is more important that our words be honest and precise than inoffensive and vague.

That being the case, we just really like the double entendre of teeth, which can both conceal what people really think and, in the heat of battle, become our most primal weapon. We, of course, lean toward the weapon sense of the word (if you want to know what we really think, just read this blog).

What Is The Big Idea?

But the teeth idea is not big. In fact, at best, it might just be clever or cute, which is not really what entrepreneurs like us see as the proper purpose of our lives. We assure you that we did not take to the trenches and found Veeto to fight for some merely clever idea.

Veeto is about something much bigger than teeth.

Sometimes, big ideas--the kind that hurt, I mean--happen when you realize you have a huge problem. You stumble upon them like an accidental witness to something you wish you had not seen. You almost wish that you had not deviated from your normal routine of thought, that you had "kept the blinders on.". Anyone who has ever happened upon this kind of big idea knows exactly what is meant by the saying "ignorance is bliss."

These inconvenient ideas slap you across the face with the realization that you are living your life every day under the weight of some massive problem that you have never even noticed before, much less know how to easily solve.

But once noticed, you cannot go back. Even if the odds are against you, you cannot walk away.

You can either roll up your sleeves and resolve to solve the problem, or you can do what most people do and just fake a smile, just grin, bear it, and pretend like it does not exist. We have already given you our views on fake smiles...

The Low-Value Claim Problem

For us, that is exactly how we felt when we realized the enormity of what we call "the low-value claim problem." We will describe the problem like this:

  1. Below a certain dollar value, a given claim might not be worth pursuing;
  2. But not because you do not care about the claim or because it does not have value;
  3. It is not worth pursuing because the cost of accessing the legal system exceeds the value of the claim.
  4. This threshold is usually around $2,500.
  5. When the money at stake in a given claim is $2,500 or less, most people cannot justify the cost or pursuing that claim.
  6. So the opponent--usually a bad company--wins by default: they get to keep your money because you cannot afford to demand its return.

It sounds like a theme in a Charles Dickens novel, which makes for good literature (so long as the story is not about us), but most people do not think in these terms, and we understand why.

It would be terribly frustrating if you began tracking all of the money that you were otherwise entitled to but could not afford to claim. So instead of thinking of it as a legal event when something mundane happens, you choose to simply walk away and forget about it. That is not justice. That is what rationality dictates, given the economics of low-value claims, and when you realize this is true in your own life, it should hurt.

Veeto's Mission

The thing about rationality, though, is that it is a two-sided equation: there is what you get and what you must give get it. Our mission is as simple as math (the 2 +2 kind): make it cheap and easy enough for people to pursue and win claims they are entitled to. By lowering the cost of what you must give to get what you are entitled to, the rationality equation spit out an entirely different dictate, a green light instead of a red one.

A metaphor we like is that of a spear. When we happened upon this problem, the spear was almost always pointing at the little guy. The bad company, the person holding the spear, would say, "yea sure, you might be entitled to this money--because we made you promises, advertised a guarantee, or otherwise duped you--but what are you going to do about it?"

We think of Veeto's job as reversing the direction of the spear. Indeed, in three years since we began working on this problem, we have absolutely seen this metaphor hold true. We know that if we can help a Veeto member craft and send a formal demand to the bad company, then we have reversed the equation. Now the bad company has to make a decision: "do I put up a fight or do I concede what I acknowledge to be intuitively fair anyway?"

We have been surprised to learn from looking at about 15,000 cases to date that, the human intuition is remarkably spot-on at determining what is fair. In practice, that means that, unless you yourself are trying to pull some fast one, if you feel you are legitimately entitled to something, not only are you probably right, but most other people--in particular, the people that really matter for the outcome of your claim, like the media and the courts--probably also agree with you.

You just need a way to afford to be heard.

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Low-value claims are a kind of economic injustice, and the problem that we are chipping away at every day is this. The outcome of a claim should have more to do with its merits than with its economics. Yet 200 million US consumers today have grown up accustomed to letting economics decide what should or should not be done.

Any system in which justice is subordinate to economics is a broken one.

Famous legal jurist Richard Posner wrote "only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30,” and his point was that there absolutely exists a low-value claim problem that the legal system has yet to figure out how to solve.

To get Veeto off of the ground, we had to be that lunatic, because we did not yet know how to reverse the equation. It was a gamble back then. But not anymore. Three years later, with 42% market share of all US consumer arbitrations with $2,500 or less at stake and a 100% win rate, we know exactly what we are doing. We know exactly how to win low-value claims.

Since we have never lost a case, and since we have completely upended the economics of the low-value-claim problem, it is hard to make the argument that Veeto members are lunatics.

But still, being a lunatic was fun for us in the early days, and if you are only just now joining us, we do not want to deprive you of that same fun. So while we will probably continue, in the official lexicon, to refer to Veeto members as such, we are happy to knight anyone who prefers it, "honorary Veeto lunatic."

According to this report (pg 108), only 33% of people in the US are able to access legal help when they need it, and of those 33% of people who were able to access legal help, 49% report that their source of legal help was friends and family. So friends and family, not lawyers, not legal aid, not any legal app or ask a lawyer forum online, is the single most utilized source of legal help in the US. Does that surprise you?

Over 320 digital legal tools for nonlawyer users exist for US jurisdictions, offering

assistance with a range of both criminal (e.g., arrest, police stops, expungement)

and civil (e.g., family, housing, health, employment) justice problems.

• Just over half of tools (52%) assist the user in taking some action on a justice

problem, such as producing a legal document, compiling evidence, diagnosing a

legal problem, or resolving a dispute.

Have a low-value claim problem now? See for yourself how Veeto can solve it.