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Where can i get a pro bono lawyer. the bar sent me one that costs money for consultation, is there a free one?

Portland, OR |

i have had a case pending for a year under sec. 1983. I am in the discovery phase and need a lawyer.

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Attorney answers 1


Many attorneys will offer free consultations. But free consultations and pro bono are different things. This is an issue that comes up a lot on this site, so let me take the opportunity to address it here:

Pro bono work is an important part of the legal tradition. I should know that if anyone does: I served on the Oregon State Bar's Pro Bono committee for the past three years, and was its chairman in 2011. I have several recent pro bono cases, including an ongoing case of great complexity. So I don't mean to discourage people from seeking out such help, and I certainly don't mean to discourage lawyers from providing it. That said:

The public often has highly unrealistic expectations for pro bono cases. People often think that if they've been injured, they're entitled not only to complete redress, but also to free help getting it. They think this regardless of whether the injury is legally actionable or not. It is almost never true.

Even pro bono cases are likely to cost a fair amount of money. This is because litigation has considerable expenses that have nothing to do with paying your lawyer. There are costs for postage, copying documents, hiring court reporters and investigators. There are filing fees and other court costs. There are often expert witnesses and other professionals (who generally do not have a pro bono tradition, and don't work for free). Oregon ethics rules prohibit attorneys from paying these costs unless they have a reasonable expectation that they'll be reimbursed. So even pro bono clients will need to advance some money up front.

And there's another reason for this: In my experience, people don't value what they don't pay for. A lawyer can put a lot of work into a case, but if they're working all for free, the client may get fed up or frustrated when things don't go their way, and quit, or fail to appear for court, or stop following the lawyer's advice. This wastes all the lawyer's work and can make them look like an idiot before the Court. I am speaking from experience. Litigation is very slow and time-consuming and rarely works out perfectly, and you may be free to walk away at any time without an investment, but your lawyer is not. Our ethics rules require us to meet certain conditions before we withdraw. If you aren't committed to it, you can subject us to a ton of trouble.

It also bears mention that lawyers don't have as much money as you might think. The typical law school graduate today has about $80,000 to $120,000 in student loan debt. Lawyers have to pay Bar license fees, extremely expensive malpractice insurance premiums, and CLE (ongoing education) costs. Lawyers are not near the bottom - we are /the/ bottom, dead last, in terms of available jobs for professionals. So salaries are dropping for firms, and many self-employed solo practitioners (like myself) make less than minimum wage.

I should also mention - though you haven't provided any information about it, so I can't make any kind of judgment - the kind of case you're talking about here is among the hardest to make. Civil rights suits under Section 1983 are actually quite common: a lot of prison inmates file such suits, often without the benefit of counsel. They make up a huge portion of the Federal court dockets. Many of these cases may reflect serious injustices, but others are frivolous or petulant complaints, or are written so badly that courts can't make sense of them. As a result, courts often treat all such cases, even the meritorious ones, with a cynical eye. The past few years have seen a lot of legal precedents which limit the ability of civil rights plaintiffs to get relief. So what you're asking for is likely a /lot/ of work.

I encourage you to shop around. You may be able to find a lawyer who can help you. But bear these issues in mind when you ask.

Nothing posted on this site is intended to create an attorney-client relationship. Each case is unique. You are advised to have counsel at all stages of any legal proceeding, and to speak with your own lawyer in private to get advice about your specific situation.

J Christopher Minor

J Christopher Minor


It sounds like you have been acting as your own lawyer for a year, and now want someone to pick up where you left off and, most significantly, you want it done at no cost to you. I thinks this is unlikely to happen. Many lawyers might have take this on a contingency basis, if your claim was meritorious. But very few lawyers want to step into the middle of a case when the work up to that point was done by a non-lawyer. There is a great potential that mistakes have been made which will prejudice the outcome, and the lawyer will be blamed for the outcome.



Both of you make excellent points. Well done.

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