NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Sometimes, it may seem impossible to afford legal help, especially when you can barely afford living expenses and lawyers charge hundreds of dollars an hour for representation. But you're facing those circumstances, and have a well-qualified case, that may land you some of the best representation money can’t buy – pro bono representation from some of the top law firms in the country as well as smaller law firms eager to offer a helping hand.

Typically, cases are reviewed and qualified by nonprofit organizations, such as Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Human Rights First, Immigration Equality and Kids in Need of Defense in the state in which the case resides. Some lawyers at smaller firms can be contacted directly, although they, too, work with nonprofit organizations. The types of legal problems vary widely and include a wide variety from those associated with health to those pertaining to military service, immigration, job loss and more. (Pro bono programs can be found at the American Bar Association.)


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Michael Pasquale, a Newark, N.J.-based litigation partner at McCarter & English represents banks and other financial institutions. For the past seven years, he has spent hundreds of hours per year for doing pro bono work for recently discharged soldiers and those who are about to be discharged who are seeking post-service benefits. Most of them have been seriously injured and cannot work. Pasquale helps them evaluate the Department of Defense’s determinations for their post-service benefits packages. When they are not “proper, fair and lawful,” he appeals on their behalf to the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims and has even appeared at 40 hearings in Washington, D.C.

The pro bono program at McCarter & English was started in 2006 when a former partner and retired brigadier general, asked Pasquale to take a pro bono case. The soldier had brain damage, hearing loss, and bone damage from a bomb explosion and had been offered a pension of 10% of his pay. Any rate below 30% would have resulted in a one-time lump sum payment based on rank and length of service. A rate of 30% or higher comes in the form of a lifelong pension and insurance coverage for life. Pasquale was able to get him 65%. (The maximum allowable is 75%.)

“There are no bad guys here,” Pasquale says. “It’s a complex, arcane system … not administered by lawyers. So there are misapplications of the law, regulations and facts. On appeal, I’m usually arguing to a colonel, a doctor who’s an officer and a third member of an appeals panel, but no lawyer administering the law and the code,” he says.

Why do law firms donate their time? Some do it because it’s good business and can pay off down the road in new clients. Others do it, because it’s required by the state bar. And others say they do it, because it’s prohibitively expensive for the average person.

“The cost of law practice … unfortunately can place justice out of reach,” says Gary Smith of Smith Paknejad in Scottsdale, Ariz. “In kind, the inaccessibility of justice erodes faith in the system itself. So, we do it because it is morally, ethically, and socially the right thing to do.”

--Written by S.Z. Berg for MainStreet