Anytime you need legal advice or representation you need to do your due diligence in finding the attorney who will competently handle your particular needs or issues. In a bankruptcy case, it is important that the attorney handling your case be fully aware of your financial situation, advise you on other options, fully explain the procedure and represent you at every stage of the process.
Where to Look
If you google bankruptcy attorneys in your area, you will undoubtedly find numerous lawyers who handle such matters. You can ask friends or relatives who may know of bankruptcy attorneys or who may have filed themselves. Other sources are your local bar association that usually has a referral service. If you have had prior legal representation in some other area, ask your attorney for a referral since many do know competent attorneys who practice other areas of the law.
You Want Experience and Competence
Most consumer bankruptcies are relatively simple to handle with only a short appearance required at a First Meeting of Creditors before the US Trustee handling your matter. You should, however, not have your family law attorney or one who handled your son’s juvenile matter preparing it for you as problems and issues can arise that could have been avoided had your attorney been better prepared and informed and which could jeopardize the discharge of your debts.
For debts that are primarily or exclusively consumer, there are attorneys who practice exclusively in this area. Find out if the attorney handles both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 since an attorney who handles only one or the other may not be able to adequately advise you on the options available. If you are filing for Chapter 11 or a complex Chapter 7 or 13, you might seriously consider finding an attorney who is certified by the American Board of Certification or who belongs to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. Attorneys also have ratings put out by Martindale-Hubbell. The highest is AV-Preeminent (4.5-5.0) though one with a BV Distinguished (3.0-4.4) means the lawyer is also very reputable.
Regardless of the simplicity of your case, avoid paralegal services or law firms that offer low rates for filing your case. These firms have paralegals on staff who gather your information and file the papers for you without any representation or advice and who are not attorneys. They are not available to assist you if issues arise in your case unless you pay an additional fee to retain an attorney, which can be considerable.
Call various firms and ask what they charge and if their representation extends from the initial conference to the final discharge and all matters in between. There are also law offices that offer low cost filing assistance that advertise doing your bankruptcy for a hundred dollars or so. These firms operate on a high volume basis, often make clerical and other errors and force you to represent yourself. If any major problems arise, you will have to pay an additional fee to hire them or someone else.
The Initial Conference
While some law offices and attorneys charge a consultation fee, there are plenty of reputable bankruptcy firms that do not. The only exception might be if you representing a fairly large company or corporation seeking Chapter 11 protection or Chapter 7 liquidation since the attorney might have to do some examination of your financial records first before recommending filing or not. For the majority of consumer Chapter 7 and 13 cases, however, you should not have to pay a fee for a consultation. If a fee is charged, many firms will apply that to the legal fees.
Here are some things to consider before and when meeting with a bankruptcy attorney:
- Do your due diligence and homework before you meet with the attorney. The basics of a bankruptcy are not that difficult to understand and you can familiarize yourself with the steps and terminology. As far as the attorney, you can usually find the attorney listed in Martindale-Hubbell where the lawyer’s education and affiliations can be found.
- Does the office look professional and organized? Many attorneys are solo practitioners who share office space with other professionals but who are extremely competent though their offices may not look fresh but still well organized.
- If you are seeking advice about consumer debts and bankruptcy, have the attorney explain to you the differences, advantages and drawbacks of Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 as they apply to your situation. Does he or she do both? Ask how many cases they have handled and if they any have experience in bankruptcy litigation.
- Who will handle the paperwork, questions and representation? Many paralegals are highly skilled in preparing petitions since it is mostly entry of information and can answer administrative questions. Any legal questions or advice must emanate from the attorney only. If an associate is to handle the case, ask to meet him or her and ask about experience.
- Did the lawyer ask you questions about your case and explain what a bankruptcy can and cannot do? Were the explanations satisfactory to you? If the attorney seems disinterested or distracted, look elsewhere.
- Did the suggestions or recommendations offered sound reasonable to you? Were you pressured into having the attorney represent you? If you feel at all uncomfortable with the advice given, interview someone else.
- Review the retainer contract with the attorney regarding filing costs and legal fees and if any
Most people can tell at the initial conference if the attorney has the experience, demeanor, interest and focus to detail required in representing debtors in bankruptcy matters. If you have any reservations, interview another attorney to find the one with whom you feel can adequately represent you.