Finding Legal Help

Close up of law books on a bookshelf.

Photo credit: witwiccan. Pixabay.

When you’ve faced difficulty at work or at school, it’s hard to know what to do. You may not be sure whether what happened violated your rights. Even if you feel strongly that someone has violated your rights, you may not know what steps to take.

Although AAUW cannot provide legal advice or referrals, the information below can help you decide what to do next and where to find legal help.

How much time do I have to find a lawyer?

Many state and federal laws require that you file a lawsuit or complaint within a short time after you experience unlawful treatment. For instance, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you generally have 180 days from the discriminatory incident to file a lawsuit. A lawyer can tell you what time restraints apply in your case. If you think you might want to pursue a legal claim, it’s important to talk with an attorney promptly to preserve your legal options.

I want to hire a lawyer. Where do I go for a referral?

Your local bar association will often offer legal referrals or a local legal aid organization can help you find resources. Bar associations are professional associations for attorneys. If your city or county doesn’t have a bar association, try your state bar association. In some cases, legal aid organizations can provide legal advice or give you a referral. This interactive map also includes many useful resources ― civil legal aid organizations, public defender offices, and law firm offices with pro bono practices ― which are sortable by geographic location.

If you are looking for an attorney to assist you with an employment problem, you can also find a referral through national groups, like the National Employment Lawyers Association.

I don’t know if I need or want a lawyer. Where can I go for more information about my rights?

Our Know Your Rights at Work and Know Your Rights on Campus pages offer basic information about your rights under federal law. However, each state has its own laws that may provide additional or different protections. Many legal aid organizations and bar associations provide online guides to your rights under state law.

Finally, some nonprofit organizations, such as Equal Rights Advocates, maintain hot lines or online chat services you can use to speak with an attorney.

What do I need to ask when I first meet with a lawyer?

Pursuing a legal claim can be a long process. Even if you don’t file a lawsuit, challenging your employer or your school can be a draining experience, both financially and emotionally. It’s important to share your concerns and ask questions when you first meet with a lawyer. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What are my legal options? What should my next steps be?
  • Does my case have merit? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What do you charge for legal representation?
  • What are the risks involved in pursuing legal recourse?
  • What kind of relief is likely in my case? Reinstatement? Promotion? Monetary settlement? Attorneys’ fees?
  • Have you represented other people with cases similar to mine?
  • If you are unable to take my case, can you refer me to someone else?

Make sure to ask about the costs of legal representation the first time you contact an attorney. There may be a cost for an initial meeting regardless of whether you decide to hire the attorney. Don’t worry about asking too many questions, and be sure to ask for clarification if you don’t understand. Your attorney’s job is to help you.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t prohibit all unfair practices. Lawyers can’t always help, even if you’ve been treated unfairly. That’s why it’s important to ask your lawyer about your legal options, likelihood of success, and the cost of pursuing a claim.

I’ve heard that I may have to file a complaint with a government agency before I can file a lawsuit with an attorney. Is that true?

In some cases, federal law requires you to file an official complaint with a government agency before you file a lawsuit. However, if possible, you should still contact a lawyer before filing a complaint.

For many federal employment discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before filing a lawsuit you must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. To do that, contact your local EEOC office, which you can find online. After you have filed a complaint, the EEOC will notify your employer that you have filed a discrimination charge and begin an investigation into your complaint. Learn more about the EEOC process through our Know Your Rights at Work resources.

If you think your school may have violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination (including sexual harassment and sexual assault) in education, you have the option of filing a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. OCR investigates complaints and can hold schools accountable if OCR finds a violation of Title IX. However, you are not required to file a complaint with OCR before filing a private lawsuit under other discrimination laws.

I’ve found a lawyer and filed a lawsuit, but I’m worried I don’t have the resources to see the case through. Can AAUW help?

Although AAUW doesn’t provide legal representation, our Legal Advocacy Fund offers case support funding for people challenging gender discrimination or harassment in the workplace or in education. Our Legal Case Support page offers more information on how to apply.

I don’t think I can afford to pay for an attorney. Are there organizations that provide legal representation for free or at reduced rates?

Yes. Many states have legal aid organizations that can help you pursue your legal rights at no or low cost. Not every legal aid organization is able to represent clients in all practice areas — for instance, many legal aid organizations focus on family law, housing law, or criminal law rather than on civil issues like employment discrimination. Additionally, most legal aid organizations only represent clients who fall within certain income restrictions. Even if a legal aid organization in your area can’t represent you, they may be able to offer specialized referrals or advise you where else to go for help.

Find your state below for a list of legal aid organizations in your area:





Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota






West Virginia