With the phonebook filled with page after page of lawyers, how do you choose the best one for you?
The first question asked by many people considering filing bankruptcy is whether they even need an attorney. While a complete answer to this question is beyond the scope of this entry, The Administrative Office of the United States Courts offers the following guidance: “While individuals can file a bankruptcy case without an attorney or “pro se,” it is extremely difficult to do it successfully. It is very important that a bankruptcy case be filed and handled correctly. The rules are very technical, and a misstep may affect a debtor’s rights. For example, a debtor whose case is dismissed for failure to file a required document, such as a credit counseling certificate, may lose the right to file another case or lose protections in a later case, including the benefit of the automatic stay. Bankruptcy has long-term financial and legal consequences – hiring a competent attorney is strongly recommended.”
Once you’ve determined that you want the help of an attorney, keep in mind the following points when selecting a lawyer to help you through this process:
Don’t wait to talk to someone
Even if you haven’t missed a payment, received a creditor’s call, or decided that bankruptcy is right the best choice for your family, there are a number of ways in which you can benefit from meeting with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. First, a good attorney can tell when someone doesn’t need to file bankruptcy and will give you suggestions on other ways to address your debt that you may not have considered. Second, an attorney will help you avoid the common mistakes made prior to filing bankruptcy that cause problems and cost money down the line. Additionally, the more time an attorney has to work with you prior to filing the case, the better your bankruptcy will be. Finally, once you’ve hired an attorney the vast majority of your creditors will stop calling you, which can be a huge relief.
Price should be just one of many factors you consider
If you’re contemplating bankruptcy, the last thing you want to do is spend more money than you have to. However, resist the urge to base your decision-making solely on attorney’s fees. The primary reason is because price can be misleading. Some firms will advertise a very low price that either doesn’t apply to very many clients, or fails to include some services which are essential to the bankruptcy process.
Another way that price can be misleading is that in bankruptcy, paying a little more upfront for quality work generally winds up saving you a considerable amount at the end of your case. Hiring the cheapest attorney you can find may result in cutting corners, outsourcing the vast amount of work to non-attorneys, or a rushed or sloppy bankruptcy petition. A poorly prepared bankruptcy almost always results in the client surrendering hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of money or property to the trustee that you would have otherwise been able to keep.
When choosing an attorney, keep in mind that you’re not buying a product, but a skilled service. Not all bankruptcies are created equal and you can only file for chapter 7 bankruptcy once every 8 years, so you’ll want make sure it’s done right the first time. A useful question to ask yourself is: Who do I want handling one of the most important legal matters of my life?
Treat the initial consultation like a job interview
You should go into the initial consultation with an attorney with two goals in mind: To learn about your options for dealing with debt, and to decide whether the attorney with whom you meet is the best fit for the job. You don’t have to hire the first attorney you talk to, and probably shouldn’t if you feel pressured to do so.
Bankruptcy is incredibly cooperative, so it is of the utmost importance that you find someone you feel comfortable with and who communicates well. On this point, you should remember that the attorney you meet might not be the person that you communicate with most often. Ask who does the majority of the work on your file – this might be an associate attorney, a paralegal, a receptionist, or data entry personnel – and speak with them.
You may want to ask how many cases the firm filed in the last month. While a big number may sound impressive, it may also indicate that the firm is places more of an emphasis on volume than precision. Ask how the firm can provide you with the personalized service you need.
What other work do they do? While a law office practicing only bankruptcy and debt law is not always going to provide the best experience, a firm that offers a multitude of different services may not have a sufficient emphasis in the unique area of bankruptcy law to give you the best experience. Look for an attorney with genuine interest in helping people with their debt rather some someone who has simply added a bankruptcy desk to existing practice because there seemed to be money to be made. Affiliations with organizations such as the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys or the American Bankruptcy Institute can indicate a genuine interest in and higher level of dedication to bankruptcy law.
You’re the star of the show
In the end, remember that whether you have a mediocre bankruptcy attorney or a really good one, your lawyer can’t do anything without your full participation and cooperation. If you make the decision early on to be the best client possible, you will find the whole process to be much easier and maybe even enjoyable.