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Finding and working with legal representation for communities

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Finding lawyers who have the same convictions and determination as the community in need of legal assistance isn't as hard as it may seem. While the media portrays lawyers, attorneys and legal representatives as relentless corporate support wing-persons, the reality is that like any discipline, there is a vast variety of legally qualified persons and the roles they play. Many lawyers are naturally driven by the desire to uphold and ensure that justice and fairness are achieved and many lawyers work within the sphere of community needs. Putting aside the assumptions about lawyers is the first step! After all, they can be an incredibly useful source of support for navigating bureaucratic and corporate documentation, rules and loopholes that you might not have the time or interest in delving into.

Finding the lawyers[edit]

Look for lawyers who work with or are affiliated with community centres, public interest offices, special interest organisations such as environmental defender offices and the like. Also contact law firms that make it obvious from their websites that they do pro bono (free, on their own time) legal work for community causes. Some law firms also specialize in community-level work and may do so based on grants or low fees.

Ask questions before deciding who to retain as your lawyer. You know your community group's cause the best, so base the questions on this. However, here are some of the sorts of questions that would be helpful to ask:

  • Have you worked with community issues/a community group before? How did that turn out?
This helps you to determine the experience of the lawyer, along with their level of enthusiasm. However, even if they've never done this before, they have to start somewhere, so gauge it on how they present their qualifications and level of interest to you.
  • What are your charges, if any? Even if you are working for free, what are the incidental costs that we might be faced with?
Don't be shy about this aspect. If your community group is going to be for any costs, you need to know upfront. And get it in writing when you retain the lawyer.
  • What time frame do you expect this issue (or case) to take?
This helps you work out whether or not the community group has the resources and endurance to take on the matter.

Working with community-minded lawyers[edit]

  • Do as much of the groundwork as you/your community group can:
The most important thing for saving everyone's time and money when working with a lawyer is to get all the facts together that you possibly can do yourself. After all, it's your cause and you know it the best, as well as where to source many of the facts. If you can put together a chronology of all that the lawyer needs to see by way of how the issues unfolded, that will save a lot of time too. Having various community group members work on this aspect can speed things up and ensure that all the relevant facts, documents, evidence, etc. is gathered. For the things you can't determine, make a list for the lawyer, who may have different avenues for being able to access such information that your community group cannot.
  • Don't withhold things from your lawyer.
Once that person is retained to your community group or organisation, they are committed to your cause and will maintain confidentiality. If you fail to tell them the whole story, it can affect the reliability, strength and success of the outcome of your cause or case.
  • Be involved.
Don't just leave it to the lawyer to fix. Treat it as a team effort and expect the lawyer to be asking you to be involved. In fact, this should be one of the things you ask about before retaining the lawyer, the extent to which they envisage your involvement directly with them in terms of working through the issue.
  • Provide updated information as it comes to light.
Things change in the course of working through legal issues, causes or a case and when new information becomes available, ensure that your lawyer is informed about this quickly and completely. In some cases, it could change the course of what you're seeking.