Reprinted with permission from Family Circle.
DO YOU NEED legal advice for a legal problem but hesitate to get it because you're afraid of what a lawyer might charge you?
Not many people know that for a fixed fee of $5 to $10, they can get low-cost legal counseling for a legal problem in over 260 cities of the country. About $5 to $10—that's the average price range for a half-hour consultation with a private lawyer, who is also a member of his local bar association. In some cities the price is as low as $3. In a few, such as affluent Beverly Hills, California, it goes up as high as $15.
This low-cost legal help is available from the Lawyer Referral Service (LRS), organized nationally by the American Bar Association and sponsored by local bar associations. LRS is not offering charity; its purpose is to provide quick and inexpensive help for any person who needs legal advice but holds off for fear it would cost more than he can afford.
Last year over 200,000 people throughout the country used the LRS. Many were women, some of them members of church, social, and community groups in need of legal advice. Many people involved in small business also sought legal counsel from the LRS.
A little more than half of all the people using the LRS have their legal problems resolved during a single visit. If you require more than the initial half hour, a full hour is often available for an additional small charge. If the legalities involved require intensive study and attention, you are referred to a private lawyer. His charge will be based on the standard local fee for the work involved. At the first meeting he should state the fee and spell out the work to be done for you. If he does not, you should ask; preferably right at the start of your discussion. Studies indicate that an overwhelming majority of the people who use the LRS come away satisfied with the results.
The greatest number of cases brought to the LRS each year concern family law. This includes marital and juvenile problems, alimony, adoptions, and even name changing. Other common categories include accident and personal injury cases; buying or selling a house or other property; zoning and property taxes; disputes with landlords or neighbors; trusts, estates, and wills; contracts, installment loans, and consumer credit; and criminal law.
If you have a legal problem in any category and do not have a lawyer, the LRS offers an excellent and inexpensive way to determine where you stand and what you should do. For example, if you need a will, the LRS can suggest a good lawyer to draw up one for you. A will, as a matter of fact, may be the most important single legal document the average person will ever sign. If a man dies without having left a will, the results could be disastrous for his widow and children.
In most states, when a man dies intestate (without a will), his widow gets only a third of his property; the rest is tied up in rigid guardianships for the children. This can mean expensive administration costs and will certainly make it difficult for the widow to support her family. Hence, every husband and wife should have a will. The LRS can help you with this, as well as with any other legal matters.
The nearest LRS office should be listed in the Yellow Pages of your telephone directory under "Lawyer Referral Service" or "Legal (or Attorney's) Referral Service." The organization is active in all but six states—Alaska, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia. If you need legal help but no LRS office is located near you, call your local bar association, which is also listed in your telephone book. Ask for the names of lawyers that you might use, and for the approximate charge for a legal consultation.
If you are in legal difficulty and lack funds, call the nearest Legal Aid Society—it does not charge at all for legal services. There are about 500 such public legal-aid groups in the country.
What lawyers charge for typical legal services: Following is the range of minimum fees charged by lawyers for typical legal services. It is based largely on a recent survey by the American Bar Association. Minimum fee means the lowest charge recommended by the local bar association for a particular service. The price will seldom be less than the minimum in your area, but it can be more, especially if your needs require more specialized professional attention.
Generally, legal fees tend to be on the low side in small towns and rural areas, particularly in the South, and highest in big cities, particularly in large industrial states. Many local bar associations have a schedule of recommended minimum fees for a particular service.
•Drafting a simple will: $10 to $50, and 50% more for a second will done at the same time for a husband or wife. A complex will involving estate taxes, trusts, etc., can run as high as $250 to $500; a really elaborate estate plan can cost about $1,000.
•Administering an estate: $35 to $400, except in Florida, where it can go as high as $500. This fee range is, naturally, for the smallest estates; minimum fees increase with the size and complexity of the estate.
•Consultation and office work: $10 to $50 an hour; highest in the states of California, Ohio, and New York; lowest in Mississippi.
•Contract (involving a simple agreement, bill of sale, power of attorney, etc.): $25 to $100.
•Uncontested adoption: $25 to $350; highest in the states of New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, lowest in Nebraska and Tennessee.
•Uncontested divorce: $75 to $600 in most places, except certain affluent California towns, where it can cost as much as $1,000.
• Buying or selling a house: $50 to $200, or .5% to 1% of the total price of the house.
•Examination of abstracts: $10 to $75; in New York State, this fee can go as high as $125.
•Clearing title to property: $100 to $500, depending to a very large extent on the size and value of the property.
•Trial practice: $75 to $300 a day; less in a few states, depending on the time the lawyer is required to spend in court on the case.
•Organizing a business corporation: $150 to $400, though sometimes based on a percentage of the corporation's assets. This, however, does not include other charges made by the state for incorporation papers.
•Contingency fees: 20% to 40% of the amount collected for an accident, condemnation, or other award; there is no charge if you lose the case (other than lawyer's disbursements for bonds, court fees, etc.).
YOU CAN SOMETIMES save money by discreetly shopping around for a good lawyer whose fees are reasonable. Such shopping is easier in large cities and for certain services, such as probating a will and administering an estate. Also inquire about paying a lawyer a straight hourly charge for the actual work performed when his fee would otherwise be based on a percentage of the total money involved. According to Murray Teigh Bloom, author of the recent best seller, The Trouble With Lawyers, paying a lawyer an hourly fee to handle a simple estate, for example, often will cost much less than the usual legal charge which is based on a percentage of the total estate. On the other hand, remember that a good lawyer can be worth many times his fee in terms of the time, trouble, and dollars he can save for you.
A final tip: There are two especially good books that explain, among other things, what lawyers can and cannot do for you. They are: The Legal Encyclopedia for Home & Business by Samuel G. Kling, and How To Avoid Lawyers by Edward Siegel.