How to find a lawyer you can afford

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(CNN Money) – One of the surprises of adulthood is how often you’d like to have a lawyer looking over your shoulder.

You want to be sure your lease doesn’t include unreasonable demands. Someone to talk to after you’ve been rear-ended. Or a professional to eyeball an employment contract.

“People get bullied and walk away,” says Jeff Bell, CEO of LegalShield, a pre-paid law service. “What happens when you get into a fender bender and the insurance claim is a hassle? Most people swallow hard and take their lumps and walk away.”

Sometimes it takes a lawyer.

“It is helpful to have a second set of eyes on your legal decisions on a daily basis,” says Anudeep Sethee, senior director of attorney services and product counsel at LegalZoom.

But what are the differences among contracting a law firm yourself, hiring a service for a flat fee or going through a pre-paid legal service? And how do you know you’re getting a good deal?

Pre-paid legal services vs. flat fee vs. hourly rates

Typically, you contact a lawyer or law firm and contract with them for their services. It’s usually someone nearby, familiar with the area of law you need and you’ll often pay by the hour. There are now many online resources, including sites like Avvo and FindLaw, that help you connect with a lawyer in your area. RightCounsel looks at 32 factors to match you with a lawyer that aligns with your case’s characteristics, personal preferences and compatibility.

Some online services connect you with a lawyer that charges a flat fee for a specific service, like a document review, will or name change. Avvo offers Avvo Advisor, a 15 minute phone call to ask questions or discuss an issue with a lawyer for $39. Legal Zoom has flat rates for many common legal services and Upcounsel allows you to post a job and lawyers respond with their experience, proposal and cost.

There are also lawyers that offer reduced prices if you meet certain income requirements, as well as legal aid groups or law clinics that will provide free services for those who are unable to pay for services.

What does a pre-paid plan include?

Alternatively, you could use an online subscription service like Legal Zoom or LegalShield. Rather than contracting with a law firm that charges hourly rates, these companies connect you to a network of lawyers and offer a menu of legal services, including a local lawyer on call and several common legal services.

What you get in a pre-paid legal plan varies by state, by the length of coverage and by the package you select.

The LegalShield pre-paid plan, for example, starts at $24.95 a month and covers unlimited advice, consultation and representation over the phone or in person, as well as 24/7 emergency legal assistance for covered situations. That includes your legal provider making calls or writing letters on your behalf and contract review. The plan also includes document preparation (wills, power of attorney, mortgage documents), family services (name change, separation, uncontested divorce or adoption), pre-trial and trial time if you are named defendant in a covered civil suit and up to 50 hours of assistance with an IRS audit.

There are additional charges for situations that may carry higher legal risk.

LegalZoom‘s pre-paid plan, starting at $9.99 a month, is a pared-down plan focused on preventative measures. Its service includes an unlimited number of 30-minute conversations on new legal issues, document reviews up to ten pages, unlimited 30-minute conversations with a tax professional on new tax issues and an annual legal checkup.

The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to be aware of the fine print on pricing, conditions and exclusions, and review a plan carefully to make sure you know what’s covered and whether it makes sense for you.

Choosing the best option for you

First you need to assess your needs. You likely need a lawyer if you’re being sued or anticipate a lot of complicated legal situations in the future, like when you’re starting a business.

But for many people who have smaller legal needs, like reviewing an employment contract or writing a will, hiring a lawyer can be prohibitively expensive.

According to a paper in the Denver University Law Review, the typical consumer of of legal services in the US makes about $25 an hour and is priced out of the services lawyers provide, even at lower rates of $125 to $150 an hour.

If you have a single need — like a will or a document to review — a lawyer may quote you a flat rate that’s less expensive than an hourly service or a legal plan.

But if you’re in a period of life full of job and housing changes, a pre-paid law plan may bring peace of mind for reviewing contracts. Just make sure you read the fine print on what they don’t cover.

The American Bar Association advises that lawyers explain their fees, ideally in writing, within a reasonable time after beginning to represent you. Some state bars require that lawyers put fees in writing before they even take a case.

And watch out for extra fees: copying documents, courier services, court filing fees, or research services — they could all be add-ons. Be sure you understand what you’ll be charged for and how much.

Keep in mind, by getting a pre-paid legal plan you may pay as much as you would pay elsewhere for a single task. So be sure to take advantage of the included services.