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What to do if you cannot afford a divorce lawyer

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A frequently asked question when going through a divorce is what to do if you need an attorney, but cannot afford one. What are the alternatives and where can one find help?

  1. Pubic Defenders- Some people are under the misconception that if they cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for them. Unfortunately, this only applies in criminal cases. The family courts do not appoint public defender attorneys for litigants going through a divorce or other family law matter, nor are private attorneys appointed at the State’s expense to pay for it.
  2. Free Legal Clinics; Most populated counties routinely offer some type of limited free legal advice clinics. There are clinics locally in Ozaukee County, Waukesha County, Milwaukee County and Washington county.  The most well known and the one that runs daily is the Milwaukee Justice Center open at the Milwaukee county courthouse. At that particular clinic, there are volunteer lawyers and other staff that offer free limited legal advice on family law cases, and there is even a drafting desk section where volunteers and lawyers can help with drafting of initial divorce papers and other legal documents.
  3. Free consultations. Many family lawyers offer free initial consultations on divorce and family law cases, including our law firm. Maybe you feel you cannot afford an attorney all the way through your case, but why not at least consult with a lawyer initially to find out what your rights are, how long things may take and what the cost may be to you. You can get all of your questions answered free of charge.
  4. Limited Scope Represenation. Under recent revisions in the ethical rules in Wisconsin, lawyers can represent a litigant, including on a family law case, for doing specific things about the case, but not representing the party all the way through the case from beginning to end. An example might be that you do the divorce yourself but as you inch towards concluding the case, you may need help with drafting the final settlement papers, and want an attorney with you in court for the final divorce hearing. You can hire an attorney specifically for that purpose, as long as the written engagement letter or agreement between you and the attorney spells out the nature of the relationship and the limited scope of the representation.
  5. Not for profit law firms or lawyers.  There are some limited resources for individuals going through a divorce who cannot afford a private lawyer. There are certain organizations, at least in the greater Milwaukee area that provide either free legal services or dimished fees for representing individuals going through a divorce or other family law matter. One of the more well known not for profit groups is Centro Legal (414 384 7900). There is also Legal Action of Wisconsin, and the Legal Aid Society. The  Milwaukee Justice Center at the Courthouse also keeps a list of not for profit law firms and lawyers who can help individuals out who may be indigent or otherwise financially difficult to hire a private divorce lawyer to represent them.
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