You want a divorce. You call around but you can’t afford the retainers quoted to you. Or your spouse files a divorce action against you and your access to funds to hire an attorney is limited. Alternatively, you aren’t married but have children together and just can’t agree on the custody or parenting time issues anymore. You want an order from the Court but you can’t afford an attorney. What do you do?

Help! I Can’t Afford an Attorney!

If you need legal assistance with a custody or divorce case and the thousand dollars plus retainers are out of reach – What do you do? Don’t worry. There are a number of options to find legal assistance in this situation.

Pro Bono Legal Services

Unlike a criminal case, where you have a right to court-appointed counsel, you are not entitled to a free attorney for a custody or divorce case. However, if you are low-income, you may qualify for pro bono legal services. Pro bono means that you are not charged the attorney fee, although you may still be responsible for other costs that come with the action.

There are many people who can’t afford an attorney for a custody or divorce case and there are many services out there to help people in this situation. If you meet the financial requirements, you can qualify for free legal representation in a custody or divorce case.

Free Legal Services in Omaha, NE

In the Omaha area, examples of non-profits that offer free legal services include Legal Aid of Nebraska, Creighton University School of Law Legal Clinic, and the Nebraska Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project, although there are also other options in the area. Some of these services are staffed by their in-house attorneys who handle your case. Other times, the non-profit serves as a way to match private attorneys to pro bono clients. Thus, usually, it doesn’t make sense to call around to attorneys to ask if they are willing to take your case pro bono if you don’t have a prior connection with that attorney. Generally, this is a waste of time.

Many private attorneys do take pro bono cases, but they often do so through one of these non-profits. For example, the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project first screens the case to make sure the person meets the low-income requirements necessary to qualify for the program. Then the non-profit matches the qualified pro bono client with an attorney willing and able to handle their case.

These pro bono programs offer a great service to the community, but they often have long wait lists and not everyone qualifies. Depending on the program, you may be lucky and have your case matched quickly with an attorney. Other cases wait for months or are never matched.


To represent yourself is to be “pro se.” You aren’t required to retain an attorney in a custody or divorce case and you have no longer the right to one if you can’t afford an attorney. The Nebraska Supreme Court has created some forms to help those who want to try to proceed with a case on their own. These are useful in limited situations.

Some simple cases can be completed without an attorney. Other times, people use the form to file what is necessary right now with the hope or plans to retain an attorney in the near future. Although these aren’t endorsed here, the Nebraska Supreme Court has approved these forms to be available on their website:

If you are going to proceed without an attorney, you can also make use of the area law libraries that have free access to information and forms or the free self-help clinics that are periodically put on in the area. There are also a number of posting boards available if your question is something that can be generally answered. These posting boards include websites like Avvo and where you can ask a question for free.

The Nebraska Supreme Court keeps a list of some of these and other Legal Resources available (

Low-Bono and Limited Scope


If you have some funds but aren’t able to afford a full retainer, you may want to look into low-bono options. In these cases, you still pay lawyer fees but they are at a reduced rate.

For example, an attorney might charge about $50 per hour on a low-bono case instead of their regular hourly of $350 per hour. The client still has to keep on top of paying their attorney fees but is only paying about 1/6 of the attorney’s standard hourly price.

Like pro bono services, you generally aren’t going to find an attorney to agree to low-bono representation by calling around without a prior relationship with the attorney. Generally, your best bet is to apply through a non-profit as you generally must first be screened to make sure you meet the financial requirements before you will be matched with an attorney.

Limited Scope

A newer option is Limited Scope Representation. In Limited Scope, you hire an attorney to represent just one part of your case. You still pay a retainer, but it is for a much lower amount since the attorney is only helping you with one part of the case.

For example, you’ve been served with a divorce or custody action but you can’t afford a full retainer. You received a document called a Summons that says to defend this lawsuit, an appropriate response must be served on the parties and filed with the office of the clerk of the court within 30 days of service of the complaint/petition.

You may also receive notice of a temporary hearing at the same time. Chances are you don’t know what that means or what to do. You only have 30 days to respond and an upcoming hearing to prepare for. You have some funds but you call around and you can’t afford a full retainer.

If this is your situation, you may be a good candidate for limited scope. In this situation, you could retain an attorney in a limited scope capacity. You would pay the attorney a set amount (usually hundreds, not thousands) and the attorney would help you with a specific part of your case.

Limited Scope Representation: What to Expect

In the above scenario, the attorney might do the following as limited scope:

  1. Speak with you in a consultation, review the file, and advise you generally of the process and the potential likely outcomes.
  2. Draft documents specific to your case, such as the Answer and a Counter Complaint so that you can file your response within the 30-day deadline.
  3. If you have a hearing coming up, provide you with the information and a draft necessary to prepare and submit your affidavits in the timeframe required. (Affidavits are often due at a set time prior to the hearing date).
  4. The attorney can also instruct you how to get signed up for any required parenting class or for mediation. These are often requirements in the early part of a custody case.

You can also agree for the attorney to appear with you for a limited number of hearings. The cost of this is more expensive than the type of limited scope that is only document preparation and consultation, but this can be a good option in the right case.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Limited Scope Representation

One positive of limited scope is that the work is specific to your case. One drawback of limited scope is that it is limited. The rules don’t allow for the attorney to continue to give advice if the attorney was retained only for limited scope.

In a regular retainer, an attorney must file an entry of appearance with the Court to give the Court and other party notice that the client has an attorney in the case. In limited scope, the attorney does not continue to be the party’s attorney in the case. As such, the attorney must honor the limited scope rules and can’t continue to give ongoing advice as the case progresses.

The court rules don’t allow this sort of “shadow representation” by continuing to give advice but not being the attorney on record of the case. An attorney can get in trouble if they continue to give advice after the limited scope retainer has ended. Thus, if your limited scope attorney says they can’t give further advice after the limited scope has ended, it is just because they are following the rules.

Can We Help?

We are happy to take pro bono cases and do so on a regular basis. Some of our favorite cases and clients were pro bono! However, like most attorneys, we do not take any pro bono cases through direct contacts or calls to our office. If you are interested in our firm being matched with your case for pro bono representation, we take our pro bono cases through the Nebraska Volunteer Lawyer’s Project and you would need to meet their qualifications and be matched with our firm through that program. As we regularly handle pro bono cases, we don’t take any low bono cases at this time.

We do offer Limited Scope services for those with lower income and generally for document preparation only. If you are interested in Limited Scope services, please use the request for contact and include your name, the other party’s name (so we can do a conflict check), the County the action is filed in, what services generally you are looking for, and your approximate income (as we only offer these services for folks that are in need of legal services and lower income). We’d be happy to see if we can help!

Law Office of Julie Fowler, PC, LLO | Divorce Lawyers Omaha

Child Custody | Child Support | Divorce Lawyers Omaha

If you are looking for an attorney in a child support case or divorce in Omaha, Nebraska, or the surrounding areas (including Papillion, Bellevue, Gretna, Elkhorn, Lincoln, Nebraska City, Sarpy, and Lancaster), contact our office to set up a consultation.

The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.