“I Don’t Want a Free Lawyer, I Want a Real Lawyer”

Lawyers do a lot of pro bono work, especially compared to other professionals. There are lots of great reasons to do pro bono work: you get to help clients, the legal profession’s reputation is enhanced, and you may learn some new skills doing work that you haven’t done before.

However, sometimes clients don’t want a free attorney, even if they can’t afford one on their own. Here are some suggestions to help you overcome that.

Explain That You Are, Indeed, Free

I run a free tenant hotline in Minnesota and have occasionally run into a client who is slightly upset they are getting advice from an attorney and the advice won’t cost them anything. A renter will call our office and spend half an hour discussing a complicated legal situation about their landlord. At the end of the conversation, some tenants ask, “How much do I owe you for this?”

They ask despite the fact that our website and every bit of promotional material we have states that calls to our office are free. Some people just don’t believe there can be no charge. It’s almost as if they expect some sort of bait and switch.

The best way to combat this is to be completely transparent about the free service and explain the limits of what you are committing to do. Are you representing the client for the limited purpose of prepping them for small claims court at a free legal clinic? Let them know that and make it clear that you won’t represent them at their upcoming hearing. If you are reviewing a lease for a small business owner, tell them that is the full extent of your free representation.

The more involved the representation, the more likely that you’ll have a written retainer agreement which should cover this issue—not just that you are free, but the limit of what you are willing to do on the client’s behalf. Although pro bono attorneys aren’t the only ones who do this, it frequently makes sense to write down the client’s goal at the beginning of the case. Sometimes it can be a great reminder when you’ve gotten them everything they initially asked for and the client suddenly has a brand new set of goals.

What if the Client Thinks a Free Attorney isn’t Good Enough?

It might seem surprising that anyone would think that a free attorney is somehow not a good deal, but it doesn’t take much searching to realize that people are more than willing to bash free attorneys, especially public defenders or court-appointed attorneys. I talked to a public defender in California, who like every public defender, has a high case load and deals with clients who question the fact that there is no charge for the attorney’s services.

The most frequent complaint against public defenders seems to be questioning their commitment to that particular client’s case. The public defender, who wished to remain anonymous, said that common complaints include, “You’re not really motivated to really put any effort on my case,” or that she is “a public pretender.” She also mentioned a very commonly used phrase: a public defender is a “dump truck,” basically meaning that they will do anything to settle or ‘dump’ the case to move on to other cases.

Legal Aid attorneys might be the only lawyers in the American legal system that can rival public defenders in case volume. A Legal Aid lawyer, who also wished to remain anonymous, said his clients were generally excited about getting a free lawyer to work on their case. But on occasion, if a case doesn’t end well for the client, he might hear something like “I should have gotten a real lawyer.”

At the core of a client’s distrust of a free attorney is that somehow, they only get what they pay for. If the lawyer is free, how can they be any good?

To start, remind the client that you are not only free but, in fact, an attorney. You may even need to provide a brief oral resume to convince your client that you are a real lawyer. If you meet them in your office, having your diploma on a wall can have a strong impression. Wearing the right clothes can also set the tone that tells your client that you are serious about helping them. Even if you are a brand new attorney, just licensed and taking your first case ever, you can still sell the fact that you went to law school and passed the bar, just like every other lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction.

Can Being Free Help a Case?

Obviously, most clients who qualify for free legal assistance would have to proceed without a lawyer if they decide to decline pro bono counsel.

Some clients believe they are better off without a free attorney, whether in a civil or criminal case. It is hard to believe that would be true. While the client may be able to spend more time on their case, an attorney brings a comfort level to any number of issues that will arise out of a court case, such as making certain pleadings are correct and appearing in court. If all of that is brand new to someone, it can be intimidating, and it is likely that the client will make errors that will hurt their case. If a client needs convincing, you should be able to sell them on the fact that a free attorney is better than no attorney.

Being a free lawyer can also have a positive effect in helping settle a case. If the other side is aware that you are working for free, they might realize that and understand that your client isn’t risking hefty attorney’s fees along with the other costs and risks associated with their case. Your client’s limited expenses can possibly lead to more favorable settlements.

In the end,  being up front with your potential pro bono clients about your skills and limitations can help them understand that you will bring value to their case, even if you are free.


  1. Avatar KN8PZI says:

    The real question is whether the lawyer is competent to perform the task. If a lawyer provides pro bono services in her own area of expertise then it’s appropriate to assure the client that he has a “real lawyer”. If the lawyer is a recognized and accomplished tax lawyer who is taking on a housing law dispute after a 2 hour seminar given by the local bar association then the client probably does not have a real lawyer regardless of the fact that the services are free and the lawyer is smart. One of the significant downsides of the US volunteer lawyer pro bono system is that it devalues the strategic subtlety of representing poor people. Competent practice in virtually every substantive area of modern law requires specialization. Legal issues confronted by poor people are no different. Lawyers who have no idea what they’re doing are probably on firmer moral and ethical grounds to give cash to established pro bono legal service organizations and leave it a that.

  2. Avatar Daniel Shinkle says:

    As a Public Defender, when I hear it, it is usually a claim about loyalty. The implicit assumption is that an attorney who is paid by the system, who spends a lot of time with the State’s Attorney and the Judge, and has an office in the Courthouse next to the State’s Attorney, will be loyal to the system rather than the client. The more sophisticated point out that a high volume attorney on a salary has a very big incentive to settle cases fast.

    I try to address it from the start by telling my clients that it is the client’s case, that I give the best advice I can and negotiate the best deal I can, but that they decide whether to take that deal if I recommend it. I tell them that if they go to trial, even if I don’t recommend it, I will give them a strong defense. If they ask whether they should hire private counsel, I tell them that enough money will get them more personal attention from their attorney.

Leave a Reply