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Requesting a Lawyer

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: 
  1.   If you are incarcerated, the type of correctional institution you are in (city, county, state, or federal); 
  2.   The type of case for which you are seeking representation (civil, criminal, or criminal appeal); 
  3.   If you are seeking a criminal appeal, the name of the county in which you allegedly committed the crime;
  4.   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
  5.   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.
Types of Cases
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.
The Court maintains a list of lawyers who are willing to take some cases "pro bono".  “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.  This panel of attorneys is a resource for the judges to use once they decide to appoint counsel in a case.
Once a case has been filed, an unrepresented litigant may file a Motion for Appointment of 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 counsel will receive representation from a lawyer. 
You can ask the Court for appointment of counsel for you if your income qualifies you. You may ask for appointment of counsel when 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 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 the Court appoints a lawyer in your case, you will not get to choose which attorney represents you. 
Additional Pro Bono Programs  
State Bar of Montana 
The State Bar of Montana provides information on local, state and national pro bono programs on their website at
Regional 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.  Please see the Resources tab on the left-hand side of this page.