There is no right to be represented by a lawyer if you want to file a civil action. This applies to both incarcerated and non-incarcerated people. There is also generally no right to be represented by a lawyer for post-conviction support if you are incarcerated.
If you can afford to hire a lawyer to represent you or can find low-cost or free professional legal help, you are strongly encouraged to do so. A lawyer can interview witnesses and discuss the case with the judge in court if you are confined in a prison or jail. A lawyer also has access to a better library and more familiarity with legal forms and procedures.
Before you try to find a lawyer, it is helpful if you can gather the following information:
If you are incarcerated, the type of correctional institution you are in (city, county, state, or federal);
The type of case for which you are seeking representation (civil, criminal, or criminal appeal);
If you are seeking a criminal appeal, the name of the county in which you allegedly committed the crime;
Whether you have pursued any form of post-conviction relief (PCR), and, if so, the case number, legal arguments, and status of any case(s); and
Your county of residence.
The more specific information you know about your case, the easier it will be to find a lawyer and to help the lawyer prepare your case. Finding a lawyer you trust and who you can work with is an important part of your legal process. When you write letters to ask for legal help, provide as much specific information about your case as possible so that a lawyer can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
There are generally two types of cases in which you may be involved:
Criminal: In a criminal case, the federal government charges you with a crime. If you have already been convicted and are in prison, you are probably not currently involved in a criminal case. One exception is if the government thinks that you committed a crime while you were in prison. In a criminal appeal, you appeal the conviction or sentence that sent you to prison. If you have a right to a criminal appeal and you cannot afford a private lawyer, you have the right to a court-appointed lawyer.
Civil: In a civil case, either you bring a claim against someone (for example, an individual, a corporation, or the state), or someone brings a non-criminal claim against you. In a civil case, someone asks for a “remedy” (for example, money compensation for an injury or an order from a court that someone has to stop doing something that violates your rights). You file a civil claim whenever you bring a lawsuit, such as a federal habeas corpus petition or a Section 1983 action. You do not have the right to a lawyer when filing a civil case (unlike in criminal cases).
Fees & Costs
If you hire an attorney, they likely will charge you a fee. Your attorney may ask you to sign a contract to pay a flat fee (a fixed amount of money for the attorney to represent you), an hourly fee, or a contingency fee (a portion of the money the Court awards you if you win your case). You will still be expected to pay for the lawyer’s litigation expenses, either before or after money is spent on your case. These expenses may include things like long-distance telephone calls, postage, photocopying, hiring an investigator, or ordering medical reports. You are also responsible for all court costs, such as filing fees, unless your income qualifies you to have the Court waive these costs or allow you to pay the fees in installments.
First Step Act
The First Step Act of 2018 gives incarcerated individuals the right to request that their sentence be reduced by a federal court in some circumstances. An incarcerated person can file a motion for compassionate release. The Court issued Standing Order BMM-13 in 2021 that provides an appointed lawyer to qualifying incarcerated people whom the Court sentenced. See the Resources for Incarcerated Individuals page for more information about the First Step Act.
“Pro Bono” lawyers are lawyers who volunteer to represent lower-income individuals in their civil suits. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent you, you can ask the Court to request that a lawyer help you with your civil case. This is called an "appointment of pro bono counsel." Pro bono lawyers' acceptance of any appointment is voluntary. The Court cannot guarantee that a lawyer will volunteer to take your case.
The District of Montana operates its own Pro Bono Program.
After a case is filed, the Pro Bono Program solicits lawyers to volunteer to represent lower-income, unrepresented litigants in all civil cases, with a particular focus on connecting lawyers with unrepresented, incarcerated individuals pursuing civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
An unrepresented litigant may file a Motion for Appointment of Pro Bono Counsel (a request for a lawyer), or the Court may request a lawyer to represent an unrepresented litigant upon its own motion. The Court may consider the complexity of the case, the experience and sophistication of the litigant, and the rights and legal issues the case implicates when determining whether to request that a lawyer take a case. The Court cannot guarantee that every litigant seeking appointment of pro bono counsel will receive representation from a lawyer.
You can ask the Court for appointment of pro bono counsel for you if your income qualifies you. You should ask for a pro bono lawyer at the same time that you file your case, along with in forma pauperis (IFP) forms. IFP forms allow people with lower incomes to ask that the Court waive or delay the filing fee and other court costs. The Court, upon its own motion, may request appointment of a pro bono lawyer as soon as you file your suit. The Court also may wait to request an appointment until your case progresses. This means that the judge may wait until after they rule on the defendant’s motions to dismiss your complaint or their motions for summary judgment.
If you are not assigned a lawyer but your case survives a defendant’s motion for summary judgment and goes to trial, you can request a lawyer again. If the Court appoints a lawyer in your case, you will not get to choose which attorney represents you.
Additional Pro Bono Programs
In addition to the Court’s Pro Bono Program, individuals seeking pro bono representation can contact the below organizations and programs to request assistance:
Montana Attorneys for Montana Veterans (MAMV)
State Bar of Montana
Other Statewide Programs
Nationally Based Programs
Military Pro Bono Project - Case referrals for financially eligible servicemember clients to ABA Military Pro Bono Project
Operation Stand-By - Volunteer attorneys providing Attorney-to-Attorney Advice from civilian attorneys to military attorneys
If You Cannot Obtain a Lawyer or Decide to Represent Yourself
Remember, if you do not have a lawyer and want to proceed with a case in federal court, you have the right to represent yourself and file your case without a lawyer (proceeding "pro se"). The right to appear pro se in a civil case in federal court is contained in a federal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1654.
Additional resources exist to assist individuals representing themselves in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana.
You can locate resources on the following pages depending on whether you are filing a suit as an incarcerated or non-incarcerated pro se litigant: