How to Find a Lawyer and Other Legal Resources in WA State
Updated October 2021
Are “Lawyers” and “Attorneys” the Same?
Often, “lawyer” and “attorney” mean the same thing. Both words can describe a person admitted to a bar association with a license to practice law.
However, the word “attorney” sometimes means something different. For example, there is a document called a Power of Attorney. In this document, you give someone the power to make decisions for you in very specific circumstances, like if you have a health emergency and cannot make decisions for yourself. It does not mean this person is a lawyer who can give legal advice or represent you in court.
What Is “Pro Se” and “Pro Bono”?
Pro se (pronounced “pro say”) is a legal term for a person who doesn’t have a lawyer. You have the right to choose to represent yourself pro se in any legal matter unless a court finds that you are not competent to do so.
Pro bono is a legal term used to describe free legal services provided by lawyers. Your county bar association may be able to connect you with pro bono lawyers in your area. Pro bono lawyers usually ask clients to pay the costs of the case, like the filing fees, copying costs, and expert witness fees.
Do I Have the Right to a Lawyer?
You have the right to be represented by a lawyer that you hire and pay. There are certain criminal and civil cases where you might have the right to a court-appointed free lawyer. See the next Q&A below.
Can I Get a FREE Lawyer?
You might qualify for a free lawyer, called a “public defender,” if you are involved in one of the following legal issues:
Eviction: As of May 2021, low-income renters in Washington state now have the right to a lawyer in eviction. Call 1-855-657-8387. Interpreters available. If you are eligible, a lawyer may give you legal advice, help you negotiate with your landlord, or possibly refer you to a legal aid program.
Involuntary Detention: You have the right to a free lawyer if you are in one of these two situations:
- You have been charged with a crime or contempt of court, and could end up in jail or prison, and are low income.
- You have been committed to a public mental health facility.
Sometimes, courts do not appoint a public defender automatically. If this happens to you, ask the court to appoint one for you.
The King County Office of Public Defense provides screening for a public defender in King County.
Call 206-296-7662 or visit in person. See the King County website for more information, including office locations. For other counties, see Office for Public Defense website.
Dependency actions: Low-income parents can get a public defender when the state seeks to terminate their parental rights. A minor child involved in dependency actions may also ask the court for a free lawyer through the Guardian ad Litem.
Minors: People under 18 years old can have a public defender appointed when they are involved in juvenile offender hearings (civil proceedings for minors accused of committing a crime). See also “Dependency actions” above.
Guardianship: When a court is deciding whether guardianship should be established over a person, that person has the right to a lawyer. If the person can’t afford a lawyer, she or he can ask the court to appoint one.
Absent due to military service: If you cannot defend yourself in a civil action because you are absent due to military service or you are a dependent of a service member in military service, a court must appoint a lawyer for you before entering a judgment against you.
What If I Don’t Qualify for a Free Lawyer?
You may still qualify for free legal help (legal advice, help with forms, representation) depending on your income and legal issue. To learn whether you qualify for free legal help, contact a referral service:
- Outside King County: CLEAR
For low-income people living outside of King County. Online application and phone numbers listed on the CLEAR website. “Low income” for CLEAR is usually about 125% of the federal poverty level, but it can be up to 200% in some situations. Free interpreters.
- 60+ years old? All counties: CLEAR*Sr: 1-888-387-7111 (toll-free)
For people 60 years old or older. No income limits. Call CLEAR*Sr and leave a voice message. The CLEAR*Sr line will close once the voice mail message system is full. Low-income seniors may also call the CLEAR line, listed above. Low-income seniors can be transferred from CLEAR*Sr to CLEAR with priority. Free interpreters.
- 60+ years old? All counties: CLEAR*Sr: 1-888-387-7111 (toll-free)
Facing Eviction? All counties. Free interpreters. 1-855-657-8387
Facing Foreclosure? All counties. Free interpreters. 1-800-606-4819
Referral service information is available in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese and Somali at www.nwjustice.org/get-legal-help.
What If I Don’t Qualify for Legal Help?
1. You can hire a lawyer or you can represent yourself.
2. Have you worked with a lawyer before? You could hire that lawyer again or ask that lawyer for referrals to other lawyers.
3. Otherwise, you can call a county bar association lawyer referral service. These services will help you figure out whether you have a legal problem and need a lawyer. If you do need a lawyer, they will try to find one for you. You may have to pay the bar association a small fee for the first 30-minute meeting with the lawyer (except for SSI/SSDI appeals). If you want to hire the lawyer, you should ask about fees first. See the Legal Voice publication “Working with a Lawyer” listed in Resources below.
A list of all Washington State County Bar Associations is here.
Bar referral services in populous areas:
Western Washington outside King County:
Are There Other Ways To Pay a Lawyer?
Contingency Fees: Lawyers sometimes take cases on a contingency fee basis: that means they take their fees out of the money awarded through a settlement or court proceeding. If you are applying for or have been denied Social Security/SSI/SSDI benefits, the law allows you to hire a lawyer that only collects fees if and when you win your case and receive benefits. This is also true for workers’ compensation and veteran’s benefits cases. Sometimes lawyers will take employment discrimination cases on contingency. See the Legal Voice publications “Working with a Lawyer” and “Damages and Contingency Fees” listed in Resources below.
Bankruptcy: Bankruptcy attorneys become a creditor in the bankruptcy. If you have assets that can be sold to pay some of your debts, you may be able to find a bankruptcy attorney to represent you on a contingency fee basis.
Court-ordered fee payment: See “Can the Court Order the Other Side to Pay My Lawyer’s Fees?” below.
If you have one of these types of cases, call a lawyer referral service for a referral to a lawyer who works in those areas of law. See “What If I Don’t Qualify for a Free Lawyer?” above.
Can the Court Order the Other Side to Pay My Lawyer’s Fees?
Maybe. Here are a few situations where the court can or will order lawyer fee payment:
Can order fee payment in family law cases (see note below).
Can order fee payment in employment wage cases.
Can order fee payment in home foreclosure cases.
Will order fee payment in certain contract cases.
Will order fee payment in cases where medical records were released without patient consent.
Note: In family law cases, your lawyer may be willing to file a motion asking the court to order the other party to pay your lawyer’s fees, if the other party is financially able to do so. If the other party ignores the order, you will still be responsible for paying your lawyer while you try to enforce the court order.
What If I Still Can’t Find a Lawyer?
Visit the Washington Law Help website for self-help materials and a list of legal services.
Visit the Washington State Bar Association website for links to information, resources and legal programs run by the WSBA, such as the Moderate Means Program.
Most county courts have a Courthouse Facilitator and/or a Family Law Facilitator Program. In King County, for example, family law facilitators give information and referrals to people representing themselves in family law cases for a small fee (fee waivers available). See the King County website for more information on the program, including walk-in hours, and links to helpful resources. To find facilitator programs in other counties, see the Courthouse Facilitators list.
Damages and Contingency Fees in Personal Injury and Discrimination Cases, by Legal Voice: Explains how a lawyer decides whether to take a case on a contingency fee basis.
Handbook for Washington Seniors: Legal Rights and Resources chapter 14 “Legal Help” (page 317), by Legal Voice: Information about lawyers, Limited Licensed Legal Technicians, and alternative dispute resolution, as well as an extensive resource list.
Mediation: Should I Use It?, by Northwest Justice Project: Information about the out-of-court process known as mediation.
Working with a Lawyer, by Legal Voice: Explains fees, interviewing lawyers, and offers special tips for domestic violence survivors when hiring a lawyer. Available in Russian and Spanish.
This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. This information is current as of October 2021. Updated by Chloë Phalan. Legal Voice gratefully acknowledges the work of Jenny Cochrane, Kay Wilcox, Joan Anderson, Poonam Bora, Kelli Smith, Josh Bam, and June Krumpotick on previous versions of this memo.
© 2022 Legal Voice — 1-206-682-9552
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)