It's a common phrase heard in the legal community. I can't afford a lawyer. The statement is usually followed by a request for free advice or pro bono representation.
I did a quick search on Google for "can't afford a lawyer" - there are 63,900 results. By contrast, "can't afford a doctor" has 6720 results, and "can't afford a gardener" has 672. I have to admit I'm surprised there were so many for gardener. Also seems odd that one is exactly ten times the other. It'll probably change in a day or so.
The "can't afford a lawyer" statement often comes from people who appear to have money. They're accused of possessing marijuana for example. I'm not up on the latest prices but it is my impression that marijuana costs quite a bit more than cigarettes, and cigarettes aren't cheap. If you can afford marijuana, then you can afford a lawyer. What the person really means is: "I don't want to pay for a lawyer." Well then you've made your choice. I can't afford to give you free advice or represent you pro bono either.
There's a sharp contrast between "can't afford a lawyer" and the situation being such that it's not worth hiring a lawyer. I sometime get calls from people who had an accident and their car was damaged. It was the other driver's fault and that driver's insurance company is only offering $2000 for the car, and the car's worth $3000. You might have a good case, but the cost of a lawyer is significantly more than the value of the dispute. Fortunately for small amounts like this you can go to small claims court.
But if you're charged with a crime, you should hire a lawyer. Does it cost a lot? Usually yes. Is it worth it? Usually yes. Some people will search for the cheapest lawyer they can find. Think about that one. A well-respected lawyer notes that no one looks for the cheapest heart surgeon. I agree that heart surgery is generally a more serious matter than most criminal cases but a criminal case is still a pretty big deal.
Since I mentioned pro bono, I've got to mention a riff of jokes I heard as a play off of that term. Pro bono is when lawyers represent people for free. Usually this is a public policy thing or something to help the poor. I do some pro bono work on drug policy and also helping minor party candidates with ballot access. But here are some other variations - some are mine, some are ones I heard:
No bono: Your client doesn't pay you.
Low bono: You don't get paid in full.
Slow bono: You get paid late.
Quid pro quo bono: Your client pays you with some other service in barter.
Show bono: You get paid with tickets to a musical.
Sunny bono: Your client offers you a weekend in their crappy condo in Florida.
Sonny bono: Your client sings to you.
Snow bono: Your drug dealer client pays you with cocaine.
Ho bono: Your prostitute client pays with ...
Bono bono: You get a U2 CD.
If any readers have more, post a comment.