How and where to find professional legal help in Alameda County
Ask yourself first – what help do I need?
- I have a problem. I don’t know what I need to do. I need advice on my legal options.
- I have decided what needs to be done. I need help completing the paperwork. (Part 2 of this post, coming soon.)
- I have a problem but I would like to do some background research first before deciding how best to handle the issue. (Part 2 of this post, coming soon.)
I have a problem I don’t know what I need to do. I need to talk to someone about my legal options.
“The law” does not always provide you with simple this-or-that or yes-or-no options. Your situation will involve individual facts that will need to be reviewed in light of current law – cases or statutes (federal or state or even another county.) It can be complicated. That is why there is a legal profession. There is a good reason that the profession and the public relies on special information collections housed in law libraries like the Alameda County Law Library. There is an incredible amount of legislative, regulatory, and court case information that needs to be organized, retrieved, and analyzed to answer legal questions. Lawyers and self-represented parties need to do research to make sure the law they are relying on is up-to-date. New laws are enacted and cases decided on a daily basis. The law changes constantly. Just look at what is happening in Washington, DC, these days.
There are many sources of legal information but only a lawyer, who is a licensed professional, can provide you with legal analysis and advice on your options.
In the US, states license lawyers. In California, this organization is the State Bar of California. You may hear references to organizations such as the Alameda County Bar Association but these are professional organizations. Joining these local groups does not allow a member to practice law in the area.
In the US, the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are used interchangeably. A litigator is an attorney whose legal practice centers on going to court or keeping clients out of the courts. A transactional lawyer is someone whose practice focuses on giving advice and drafting documents related to legal transactions, such as, starting a business or setting up a trust.
To begin, here are some resources that will provide you with things to think about before you hire an attorney:
How to find an attorney – Fee for services
From the State Bar’s website – “What can a certified lawyer referral service do for you?”
Can refer you to a lawyer who has experience in the field of law that relates to your case.
Will refer you to attorneys who are insured. All lawyers who participate in certified lawyer referral services must carry malpractice insurance to protect their clients. This means that if your lawyer does something wrong, and you successfully sue for malpractice, the lawyer will have the ability to pay.
Will screen your call to determine whether you have a legal problem — or need some other type of assistance. And if you do need another type of assistance, the referral service can refer you to government agencies or other organizations that may be better suited to assist you. For example, you might have a problem that could be handled, without charge, by a rent control board or community mediation program.
Will only refer you to an attorney who has met certain standards of experience and is a State Bar member in good standing.
Will only refer you to an attorney who has agreed to do fee arbitration in the event of a fee dispute.
May be able to provide an attorney at a reduced rate. Lawyer referral services are required to make arrangements to serve people with limited means.
May be able to provide you with a bilingual attorney.
Lawyer directories – non-commercial
Lawyer directories – commercial directories
Yellow pages, TV, legal newspapers. Caution – such advertisements are paid marketing. The TV ads with phone numbers usually will direct you to a call in-take center.
I have some names. How do I check on the lawyer’s background?
- Check the attorney’s California State Bar listing. You can make sure the individual is currently in good standing – able to practice law within California. You can also check on entries for any prior issues that were reported to the Bar and made public.
- Review information on attorney’s website or their firm’s website. The site may give you information about the types and range of legal matters (specialist or generalist) an attorney handles.
- Run searches for the attorney’s name using different internet browsers. You may be able to find news articles written by the individual or discover newsworthy cases he or she has handled.
- While doing you internet search, check to see if the attorney has a professional blog or is active on other social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Reading the postings may give you a sense of whether you would be comfortable dealing with this individual.
- No-cost searching for other court cases an attorney has handled will require searching multiple courts case info pages. Search access varies by individual court. There are expensive commercial databases that track this information but these are not available to the average person.
- Currently — for Alameda County Superior Court – you can search by attorney name in the recent online criminal records.
I can’t afford to pay for professional help.
Legal Aid (low cost or no cost pro bono. Pro bono is short for pro bono publico, a Latin term that means “for the public good.”)
Criminal – Alameda County Public Defender. From the AC Public Defender’s website – Overview
Overview – If you have been charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney, you will be assigned an attorney from the public defender’s office. Our office’s practice consists predominantly of criminal defense litigation. We defend adults and juveniles charged with crimes ranging from petty-theft to capital murders. The office also defends individuals subject to involuntary psychiatric, civil commitments and conservatorships.
Additionally, our office represents individuals in certain specialty or collaborative courts, such as homeless court, drug court and mental health court. Most collaborative courts look to alternatives to incarceration in order to provide individuals with the services and treatment that they need.
Non-criminal – You may be able to connect to an organization that provides free or low-cost legal assistance for non-criminal matters. Your eligibility for these services depends on your level of income and/or the subject of your legal problems. Some organizations handle a variety of issues. Some focus on serving certain social demographic groups. Some offer classes or clinics to assist you in handling your own legal problems.
Alameda County legal aid organizations that handle a range of issues:
There are many others that focus on certain clientele – for example, Legal Assistance for Seniors.
Pro bono – you may receive a referral from a legal aid organization to a private attorney willing to forgo a fee or take a reduced fee for your type of case.
Pro bono should not be confused with the term “pro se” or “pro per” – a term used when a non-lawyer represents him or herself in court proceedings. A non-lawyer can represent his or her own legal interests but is not allowed to represent another party.
The Volunteer Legal Service Corporation (VLSC) is the pro bono arm of the Alameda County Bar Association. VLSC provides free legal aid to low-income people in Alameda County through pro per legal clinics staffed by volunteer attorneys. The goal is to assist people in learning how to represent themselves.
Not all legal issues are handled by pro bono legal services. At the ACLL Reference Desk, we are regularly asked where to find a pro bono attorney for a probate case. The Alameda County Superior Court’s Probate Court hears cases related to personal and financial affairs of adults and children. The Probate Division handles guardianship for children and conservatorships for incapacitated adults. There are legal aid groups that serve members of these communities. The Superior Court’s Self Help center will give some help for establishing guardianships and conservatorships.
Most people have heard the phrase “probating a will” – the distribution of assets when someone dies. Or what can be more complicated for heirs – “dying intestate” – without having written a will. It is not easy to obtain pro bono legal services when legal matters involve claims for valuable assets – such as a case about who inherits a house or bank accounts. Legal aid groups do not usually handle these types of matters unless the party involved is a minor or disabled and therefore incapable of handling business matters for themselves.
On Part 2 (coming soon) of this post will be covered two other approaches to handling the need for legal services:
- I have decided what needs to be done. I need help completing the paperwork.
- I have a problem but I would like to some research first before deciding how best to handle the issue.