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Finding Pro Bono Legal Help for Criminal Charges in NYC

March 21, 2024

Finding Pro Bono Legal Help for Criminal Charges in NYC

Getting arrested or facing criminal charges can be an incredibly stressful and frightening experience. Even if you’re innocent, navigating the criminal justice system is complicated. Having an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side makes a huge difference.

But lawyers are expensive. Like, really expensive. Just meeting for an initial consultation can cost hundreds of dollars. If your case goes to trial, total legal fees can easily climb into the tens of thousands.

What do you do if you can’t afford a lawyer? Well, the good news is there are quite a few options for getting pro bono (free) legal help with criminal charges in New York City. This guide will walk you through some of the best resources.

What is Pro Bono?

Pro bono is Latin for “for the public good.” It refers to legal services that lawyers provide for free to help people who can’t afford to pay.

Lawyers aren’t required to do pro bono work. But many choose to donate some of their time to help the less fortunate. The American Bar Association recommends that lawyers do at least 50 hours per year of pro bono work.

Some law firms have formal pro bono programs. Individual lawyers may also take on pro bono clients directly. There are also nonprofit legal aid organizations that exist solely to provide free legal help.

Do You Qualify for Pro Bono Help in NYC?

To qualify for free legal help with criminal charges in New York City, you’ll generally need to show two things:

Christine Twomey
Christine Twomey
Just had my Divorce case settled 2 months ago after having a horrible experience with another firm. I couldn’t be happier with Claire Banks and Elizabeth Garvey with their outstanding professionalism in doing so with Spodek Law Group. Any time I needed questions answered they were always prompt in doing so with all my uncertainties after 30 yrs of marriage.I feel from the bottom of my heart you will NOT be disappointed with either one. Thanks a million.
Brendan huisman
Brendan huisman
Alex Zhik contacted me almost immediately when I reached out to Spodek for a consultation and was able to effectively communicate the path forward/consequences of my legal issue. I immediately agreed to hire Alex for his services and did not regret my choice. He was able to cover my case in court (with 1 day notice) and not only was he able to push my case down, he carefully negotiated a dismissal of the charge altogether. I highly recommend Spodek, and more specifically, Alex Zhik for all of your legal issues. Thanks guys!
Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
Thanks again Spodek law firm, particularly Esq Claire Banks who stood right there with us up to the finish line. Attached photos taken right outside of the court building and the smile on our faces represented victory, a breath of fresh air and satisfaction. We are very happy that this is over and we can move on with our lives. Thanks Spodek law 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼🙌🏼❤️
Keisha Parris
Keisha Parris
Believe every single review here about Alex Z!! From our initial consultation, it was evident that Alex possessed a profound understanding of criminal law and a fierce dedication to his clients rights. Throughout the entirety of my case, Alex exhibited unparalleled professionalism and unwavering commitment. What sets Alex apart is not only his legal expertise but also his genuine compassion for his clients. He took the time to thoroughly explain my case, alleviating any concerns I had along the way. His exact words were “I’m not worried about it”. His unwavering support and guidance were invaluable throughout the entire process. I am immensely grateful for Alex's exceptional legal representation and wholeheartedly recommend his services to anyone in need of a skilled criminal defense attorney. Alex Z is not just a lawyer; he is a beacon of hope for those navigating the complexities of the legal system. If you find yourself in need of a dedicated and competent legal advocate, look no further than Alex Z.
Taïko Beauty
Taïko Beauty
I don’t know where to start, I can write a novel about this firm, but one thing I will say is that having my best interest was their main priority since the beginning of my case which was back in Winter 2019. Miss Claire Banks, one of the best Attorneys in the firm represented me very well and was very professional, respectful, and truthful. Not once did she leave me in the dark, in fact she presented all options and routes that could possibly be considered for my case and she reinsured me that no matter what I decided to do, her and the team will have my back and that’s exactly what happened. Not only will I be liberated from this case, also, I will enjoy my freedom and continue to be a mother to my first born son and will have no restrictions with accomplishing my goals in life. Now that’s what I call victory!! I thank the Lord, My mother, Claire, and the Spodek team for standing by me and fighting with me. Words can’t describe how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with this team. I’m very satisfied, very pleased with their performance, their hard work, and their diligence. Thank you team!
Anthony Williams
Anthony Williams
Hey, how you guys doing? Good afternoon my name is Anthony Williams I just want to give a great shout out to the team of. Spodek law group. It is such a honor to use them and to use their assistance through this whole case from start to finish. They did everything that they said they was gonna do and if it ever comes down to it, if I ever have to use them again, hands-down they will be the first law office at the top of my list, thank you guys so much. It was a pleasure having you guys by my side so if you guys ever need them, do not hesitate to pick up the phone and give them a call.
Loveth Okpedo
Loveth Okpedo
Very professional, very transparent, over all a great experience
Bee L
Bee L
Amazing experience with Spodek! Very professional lawyers who take your case seriously. They treated me with respect, were always available, and answered any and all questions. They were able to help me very successfully and removed a huge stress. Highly recommend.
divesh patel
divesh patel
I can't recommend Alex Zhik and Spodek Law Firm highly enough for their exceptional legal representation and personal mentorship. From the moment I engaged their services in October 2022, Alex took the time to understand my case thoroughly and provided guidance every step of the way. Alex's dedication to my case went above and beyond my expectations. His expertise, attention to detail, and commitment to achieving the best possible outcome were evident throughout the entire process. He took the time to mentor me, ensuring I understood the legal complexities involved to make informed decisions. Alex is the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with and has made a meaningful impact on me. I also want to acknowledge Todd Spodek, the leader of the firm, who played a crucial role in my case. His leadership and support bolstered the efforts of Alex, and his involvement highlighted the firm's commitment to excellence. Thanks to Alex Zhik and Todd Spodek, I achieved the outcome I desired, and I am incredibly grateful for their professionalism, expertise, and genuine care. If you're in need of legal representation, look no further than this outstanding team.
  1. You are facing criminal charges in one of the 5 boroughs of NYC
  2. You cannot afford a lawyer

The first part is straightforward. You need to have an active criminal case in NYC, whether it’s in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island.

Showing that you can’t afford a lawyer is trickier. There aren’t hard income limits. Whether you qualify depends on your overall financial situation, including:

  • Your income
  • Your assets
  • Your expenses
  • How many people you support

As a general rule, if hiring a criminal defense lawyer would cause you serious financial hardship, you may qualify for pro bono assistance. Be prepared to share documents like tax returns, bank statements, and pay stubs to prove your financial situation.

Where to Find Pro Bono Legal Help in NYC

If you think you may qualify for free legal help, here are some good places to start your search:

1. Legal Aid Society

Founded in 1876, The Legal Aid Society is one of the oldest and largest pro bono legal organizations in the country. They handle around 300,000 cases each year across all 5 boroughs of New York City.

For criminal charges, Legal Aid handles both misdemeanors and felonies. Their experienced attorneys regularly defend clients against charges like:

  • Drug possession
  • DUI
  • Assault
  • Theft/larceny
  • Trespassing
  • Disorderly conduct

Legal Aid helps clients at all stages of the criminal justice process including arraignments, trials, appeals, and parole hearings. In addition to legal defense, they also help with related issues like navigating the bail system.

To qualify for help from Legal Aid, you’ll need to verify that your income is below a certain level. This varies by family size, but is around 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. Legal Aid also considers other factors like assets and expenses.

You can apply online or call their hotline at (844) 963-6880.

2. New York County Defender Services

New York County Defender Services (NYCDS) provides free legal defense for people facing criminal charges in Manhattan (New York County). Their specialized units assist with felonies, misdemeanors, domestic violence cases, parole violations, and more.

Like Legal Aid, NYCDS verifies client income to determine eligibility. They also take into account other factors like immigration status, mental health, and substance abuse when deciding whether to take a case.

You can reach NYCDS by calling (212) 803-5100 or applying in person at their office:

100 William Street
19th Floor
New York, NY 10038

NYCDS encourages calling ahead to learn more about their services before visiting.

3. Other Public Defender Offices

In addition to NYCDS, each NYC borough has its own public defender office that provides free legal services to qualifying residents facing criminal charges, including:

As nonprofit public defense organizations, these groups can provide free legal help for criminal cases to qualifying clients who can’t afford private attorneys. Contact them directly to learn more about applying for services.

4. Court-Appointed Lawyers

If you’re unable to find pro bono representation from legal aid/public defender organizations, you may qualify for a court-appointed lawyer.

Under the Sixth Amendment, all criminal defendants are entitled to counsel, even if they can’t afford it. To protect this right, judges have the power to assign free lawyers to people facing criminal prosecution who don’t have their own attorney.

There is no formal application process. If you show up to court for arraignment or a hearing without a lawyer, you can request a court-appointed attorney at that time. You’ll need to provide documentation to verify your financial situation.

Court-appointed lawyers are usually private attorneys who take on pro bono cases when appointed by a judge. The quality of representation can vary.

5. Law School Clinics

Several New York City law schools operate legal clinics where students provide pro bono assistance under the supervision of licensed attorneys. These clinics focus on specific practice areas like criminal defense and family law.

For example, CUNY Law School has a Criminal Defense Clinic that represents low-income clients facing misdemeanor and felony charges. Fordham, Cardozo, and NYU also run criminal defense clinics.

The process to apply for help from a law school clinic varies. In most cases, you’ll work with clinic administrators and students will be assigned to your case if you meet eligibility criteria.

6. Other Pro Bono Programs

In addition to the options above, many local bar associations and legal nonprofits in NYC offer pro bono services for criminal cases, including:

Reaching out to these organizations directly is the best way to learn more about their eligibility requirements and application process.

Pro Bono Help for Federal Criminal Cases

The resources above focus on pro bono assistance with state criminal charges in New York City’s local court system. If you are facing federal charges, such as immigration violations, bank fraud, or drug trafficking across state lines, the process to get free legal help is different.

Each federal district court has a CJA (Criminal Justice Act) plan that provides attorneys for defendants who can’t afford counsel in federal criminal cases. Speak with the federal public defender in the district where your case was filed for more information.

Finding the Right Pro Bono Lawyer Matters

Getting free legal help is great, but it’s also important to find an attorney who is experienced with criminal defense specifically. Not all lawyers have the same skills and background.

When reaching out to legal aid/public defender organizations, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the qualifications of their staff attorneys. How many years have they been practicing criminal law? How many cases similar to yours have they handled? What is their track record?

For court-appointed counsel or law school clinics, it can be harder to know the background of the lawyer assigned to you. Do your own research on their experience and credentials. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if you have concerns.

Apply Early for the Best Chance of Success

Because resources are limited, the best pro bono programs often have long waitlists. The sooner you apply after criminal charges are filed, the better your chances of getting matched with a free lawyer.

Waiting until right before trial to start looking for pro bono help is risky. You may end up having to represent yourself in court, which is never advisable when criminal penalties are on the line.

Be Persistent and Cast a Wide Net

Finding free legal help often requires calling many different organizations, completing multiple applications, and following up relentlessly. Don’t get discouraged if one or two places turn you down or don’t respond.

Applying to every reputable legal aid organization in your area gives you the best shot at finding pro bono representation. You may need to be patient, but with commitment it is possible for almost anyone to get free legal defense.

Getting Free Legal Advice (Even Without Representation)

Some legal aid groups offer advice and counsel to people facing criminal charges, even if they are unable to take on providing full representation. Examples include:

While not a substitute for a dedicated lawyer, getting advice from a legal professional can still provide valuable guidance as your criminal case progresses.

Don’t Go It Alone

The stakes are high when criminal penalties and your freedom are on the line. Trying to navigate the justice system alone, without any legal training, is extremely unwise.

If you exhaust all options for pro bono representation, find another way to scrape together money for a paid lawyer. Ask friends and family for help. Take out a loan. Hold a fundraiser. Start a GoFundMe.

Your best chance at the best outcome requires experienced legal counsel. Don’t let lack of money stop you from getting the legal representation you need and deserve.

Special Options for Low-Income New Yorkers

For defendants living in poverty, New York offers some additional ways to get an attorney:

Assigned Counsel Program

Run by the state Office of Indigent Legal Services, the Assigned Counsel Program provides lawyers in criminal cases where the charges mean you could go to jail if convicted. You have to verify that you can’t afford a private attorney. The judge assigns an attorney and the state pays them.

Income Eligible – Public Defender Services

In NYC, legal aid organizations like The Legal Aid Society handle criminal cases for free if your income is below a certain level, which varies by family size. For example, the limit for a family of 4 is around $50,000/year. They help with misdemeanors and felonies.

Income Eligible – 18B Attorneys

Section 18B of New York County Law establishes a system where private lawyers are certified to take pro bono criminal cases. Judges appoint attorneys from the 18B panel if defendants qualify based on financial need.

Getting an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer Matters

Not all lawyers have the same skills and background when it comes to criminal law. When applying for pro bono help, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the qualifications and experience of the attorneys.

How many similar cases have they handled? How often do they work in criminal court? Do they specialize in certain types of charges or defenses?

Vetting the legal aid lawyers assigned to you helps ensure you get top-notch representation even if it’s free.

Pro Bono Help for Appeals

Many legal aid organizations only handle trial-level criminal cases. If you’ve already been convicted and want to appeal your case, you may need to find a different lawyer willing to work pro bono.

Good options for pro bono help with criminal appeals in New York include:

The appeals process has strict deadlines, so don’t delay in starting your search for pro bono appellate counsel.

Financial Help for Bail, Fines, and Fees

Even with a free lawyer, paying for bail, fines, court fees, etc. may be a struggle if you have limited financial resources. Some options for assistance include:

  • Liberty Fund – Charity that pays bail for low-income defendants
  • Bail funds – Nonprofits that help defendants pay bail
  • Payment plans – NYC allows payment plans for court fees/fines

Don’t let financial constraints derail your criminal case. Seek help to cover these costs if needed.

The Outcome Matters Most

At the end of the day, the most important thing is getting your criminal case resolved with the best possible outcome. Don’t let fear of legal fees stop you from getting the lawyer you need.

With persistence and creativity, there are solutions for getting experienced criminal defense counsel on your side, even if you have little money. Don’t go it alone – it’s worth the effort to find affordable representation.

Your freedom and your future are on the line. Take advantage of the pro bono resources in NYC so you can put up the strongest legal fight possible.


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