29 Nov 23

Finding Pro Bono Assistance for Federal Criminal Appeals

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 01:30 pm

Finding Pro Bono Assistance for Federal Criminal Appeals

Getting convicted of a federal crime can be devastating. Many defendants simply do not have the financial resources to hire a private attorney to handle their criminal appeal. Thankfully, there are organizations that provide pro bono (free) legal services to assist those who cannot afford representation.

Why You Need an Attorney for Your Appeal

Filing an appeal without an attorney is very unwise. The appeals process is complex and requires an experienced attorney to navigate. Procedural rules are strict and missing deadlines can ruin your chances to overturn your conviction. A knowledgeable attorney understands these rules and knows how to effectively present arguments to give you the best shot at success.

Options for Pro Bono Appellate Assistance

If you cannot afford an appellate attorney, there are a few options to find pro bono assistance:

  • Federal public defender organizations
  • Court-appointed attorneys (also called CJA panel attorneys)
  • Law school appellate clinics
  • Non-profit legal aid organizations

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

Federal Public Defender Organizations

Every federal judicial circuit has a Federal Public Defender Organization (FPDO) that provides free legal defense services. FPDOs have appellate divisions with attorneys experienced in handling federal criminal appeals. However, their resources are limited, so they must prioritize the most serious cases.

To qualify for representation by an FPDO appellate attorney, you must demonstrate financial need. The approval process considers your income, assets, debts, expenses, and ability to pay for a private attorney. Even if you do not fully qualify, an FPDO attorney may still be able to assist you pro bono if your appeal has merit.

Court-Appointed Attorneys

If the FPDO cannot represent you, the court may appoint a Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel attorney to handle your appeal pro bono. CJA attorneys are private lawyers who agree to periodically accept court appointments on a pro bono basis.

To get a CJA attorney, you must fill out a financial affidavit (CJA Form 23) to verify that you cannot afford to hire an appellate lawyer. The judge reviews your financial situation and decides whether to appoint counsel. If appointed, the CJA attorney’s fees and expenses are paid by the courts, so you incur no costs.

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Law School Appellate Clinics

Many law schools have appellate clinics that allow students to gain experience by working on actual criminal appeals under professor supervision. Clinics take on a limited number of federal appellate cases each year to provide pro bono assistance.

For example, Cornell Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic has an entire practice area focused on federal criminal appeals. Georgetown Law operates the Appellate Litigation Clinic allowing students to work on appeals before federal circuit courts. These provide excellent free legal help when accepted.

Non-Profit Legal Aid Organizations

Some non-profit legal aid organizations have appellate attorneys on staff or pro bono networks that may be able to assist with a federal criminal appeal. For instance, Public Counsel’s Appellate Law Program handles select federal appeals pro bono.

State bar associations sometimes have pro bono appellate programs as well. The California Bar and New York City Bar connect qualified applicants to volunteer attorneys to help with appeals.

It takes some research and outreach to locate these resources. Court clerks may also have suggestions of programs to contact.

How to Apply for Pro Bono Appellate Assistance

The application process varies for the different pro bono options but generally involves:

  1. Filing a financial affidavit demonstrating inability to afford an attorney
  2. Completing an application form requesting legal help
  3. Providing information about your criminal case and conviction
  4. Explaining why you believe your conviction should be overturned on appeal

The organization will review your request and decide whether to accept your case for pro bono representation. Be sure to apply well in advance of any appellate deadlines to give enough time for review.

Representing Yourself Pro Se as a Last Resort

If you exhaust all options and cannot find pro bono counsel for your criminal appeal, you may have to file pro se (represent yourself). This is extremely risky if you lack legal training. Make sure to carefully research all appellate rules and procedures.

The appeals process has rigid deadlines and many mandatory filings. Miss something important and your appeal may be dismissed. While not advisable, some pro se appellants manage to successfully navigate the complex appellate system. But your chances of winning are much lower without an experienced attorney.

You can request permission to file an “Anders brief” which allows making any arguments you want even if frivolous. The court must review them but can still dismiss if found completely without merit.


Finding pro bono assistance for a federal criminal appeal takes effort but can provide you with skilled representation you otherwise could not afford. FPDOs, CJA attorneys, law school clinics, and legal aid organizations are great resources to tap if you qualify.

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Having an experienced appellate lawyer greatly boosts your odds of getting your conviction overturned. So pursue any viable options for free legal help before attempting a risky pro se appeal. With dedication and perseverance, you may be able to get your conviction vacated or sentence reduced.