How To Choose A Bankruptcy Lawyer
So, you’re in deep financial trouble. Behind on mortgage, car and student loan payments. Already maxed out six credit cards and headed that way on the seventh. Finally got another job, but the salary is 20% less than what you were making when you already were in trouble.
There is a layer of anxiety wrapped around you every day feels like a belt. All you want to do is scream: “H-E-L-P!”
Fortunately, there is good news. You have a shot at a new life by filing for bankruptcy and you might not even have to lose your home or car.
All that’s required is successfully choosing a bankruptcy lawyer capable of getting you out of this miserable situation.
Just knowing you’re in too deep to manage things yourself is an impressive first step. Bankruptcy courts groan under the weight of desperate debtors who tried to represent themselves. Bankruptcy law is complicated and exacting. Many self-represented filers wind up worse off than they were before, losing their possessions without discharging any of their debts.
Bankruptcy judges have a term for such situations, says Tampa-based Bankruptcy Judge Catherine Peek McEwen. “We call it ‘a mess.’ ”
Nobody wants that.
Starting Point for Choosing a Bankruptcy Lawyer
Choosing a bankruptcy lawyer is essentially a two-step process: Begin by finding and vetting likely candidates. Complete the mission by interviewing the handful that meet your criteria, then retain the one that feels the most compatible.
The internet abounds with websites that help with finding and vetting, but old-fashioned methods are useful. Ask neighbors. Ask friends and relatives. (Yes, you have to swallow your pride.) Perhaps there are lawyers on your homeowner’s association board. There surely are lawyers on the board of your church. Ask all of them for recommendations.
Next step should be to visit websites like the American Bar Association (findlegalhelp.org), Legal Services Corporation (LSC.gov), and the federal court system (uscourts.gov). Avvo (avvo.com) and Martindale-Hubbell (martindale.com) are reliable ratings services for finding affordable bankruptcy attorneys.
The state and local bar associations are also good resources; simply enter your state or city and the terms, “bar association” and “bankruptcy attorney” into your favorite search engine.
It Helps to Hire a Bankruptcy Specialist
Now, start the vetting process. Many sites — not just Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell — include starred peer ratings, and, like Amazon, allow searches based on numbers of stars. At Martindale-Hubbell, pay particular attention to lawyers whose pictures bear small red hexagonal signs with “AV” in the center. That is their most distinguished rating.
A caveat: Be wary of four-star lawyers who have only a handful of reviews; they might all have come from teammates on his (or her) softball team.
In all likelihood, you’ll want to hire a lawyer who specializes in bankruptcy. Though the last major revision to bankruptcy law was passed in 2005, interpretations of the law are constant.
“You might read a phrase in the statute and think it’s cut-and-dried,” Judge Peek McEwen says, but it’s not necessarily so. Only specialists can be counted on to know the latest rulings from circuit courts all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and how those rulings apply to clients.
It’s a very good sign if the specialist attorney belongs to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (nacba.org), which keeps them on the cutting-edge of relevant rulings.
Investigate whether your candidate attorneys are certified, which, according to the American Board of Certification (abcworld.org), “means that the certified attorney has met rigorous, objective standards and has demonstrated knowledge in bankruptcy and/or creditors’ rights law.”
What else? Have they published articles in professional journals? Are they in demand as speakers at bankruptcy conferences? Both indicate attorneys recognized as experts by their peers.
Finally, investigate the lawyers’ histories of ethics complaints. The state bar’s website usually is a good source for such information.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time for interviews. Schedule at least three for comparison purposes. Also, don’t be put off by a strong candidate who charges a small consultation fee. Usually that fee can be rolled over against your bill if you and the attorney decide you’re a match.
Before you go, make sure you know what the lawyer needs you to bring to properly assess your circumstances.
What Should You Ask a Bankruptcy Lawyer?
When you interview a bankruptcy lawyer, you want to be confident about their competency and comfortable that they care about solving your problem. Here are some questions that should help you arrive at both.
- Begin by establishing whether the lawyer thinks you’re a qualified candidate for bankruptcy, and if so, which variety, Chapter 7 or Chapter 13?
- Find out how many bankruptcies they’ve done, and what types?
- How large is the lawyer’s practice, or affiliate firm? Single-proprietor and boutique firms might provide a personal touch, but larger firms offer more resources. The one you choose may depend on how complex your case is.
- How quickly do they return calls? What is their policy about charging for calls?
- How hands-on will the attorney be? Will (s)he file all your paperwork? Will (s)he accompany you to court?
Remember, you’re looking for someone who is devoted to helping people get back on their feet. When the interview is complete, jot your thoughts in a journal, or tap them into your smartphone.
Ask these questions yourself:
- Did the lawyer listen?
- Did the lawyer strike you as trustworthy?
The Three “E’s” of Choosing a Bankruptcy Lawyer
Reed Allmand, a certified bankruptcy attorney based in Dallas, stresses that the selection of an attorney be guided by the “three Es”: Empathy, Experience, and Expense.
Let’s take them in reverse order. After all, who cares about empathy and experience if you can’t afford the expense?
You don’t have to be insolvent to ask: “How much is this going to cost?”
“You should be able to find a bankruptcy attorney who can work with your finances … for reasonable attorney fees,” Allmand said.
Most offer plans that allow legal services to begin without a large upfront payment. By all means, comparison shop. “Reasonable attorney fees” can be a relative term. You don’t want to make a bad financial situation worse by getting burned.
Allmand recommends against choosing “dabblers” who often are more interested in quick, out-the-door closings than the nuances of a client’s predicament.
Also to be avoided: “bankruptcy mills,” the high-volume law firms that churn customers like used-car salesmen.
Some of the signs you are being put through a mill include:
- They advertise heavily
- They file large numbers of bankruptcy cases each month
- They offer scant contact between clients and attorneys while relying heavily on non-lawyer support staff for the filing process
- They fail to file documents in a timely fashion
- They arrive at hearings unprepared
Don’t get “milled” while searching for a bankruptcy attorney. Volume doesn’t matter. Empathy, experience and expense, do.
Don’t Let Final Decision Scare You
Allmand, like any reputable bankruptcy professional, knows you’re feeling guilt and shame. The last thing you need is an advocate who ladles on judgment or condescension. It helps if the attorney has empathy for the client’s situation.
Maybe they’re enduring a divorce, he says. Or their kid is sick or the car broke down or they lost their job. The go-to bankruptcy attorney knows overwhelming financial strife often creates more problems and increases misfortune.
Allmand remembered a client who had spent the day attempting to ward off a next-day eviction … and had seriously considered suicide as the best option.
Ultimately, however, she made her way to his office — late and disheveled, perhaps, but alive and determined. There, with empathy from Allmand, they began the process of getting her to a better day.
This, says Judge Peek McEwen, is the essence of bankruptcy laws: They are designed to get people to a fresh start. In her experience — she’s been on the bench in downtown Tampa for 12 years — good bankruptcy attorneys want to navigate a successful journey.
“We hope the experience isn’t scary,” she says. “It isn’t meant to be scary. We’re all doing things to help people get through it.”
About The Author
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].