Choosing a Bankruptcy lawyer is probably the most important decision a person can make during the process, other than the decision to file Bankruptcy. If you are considering filing, or believe it may be necessary in the near future, it is important that you speak with a lawyer or two well in advance of the time you may have to file. There are several important reasons for this. One, if you ultimately have to file for Bankruptcy, it is important that you hire a lawyer who is experienced, knowledgeable, responsive, and with whom you feel comfortable. Two, if you are experiencing financial problems, an experienced Bankruptcy lawyer will be able to provide an opinion on whether Bankruptcy is a viable option and, if so, help you plan for a filing. That includes explaining what you should or should not do in the weeks or months before filing. In many cases, this step alone saves clients more money than they will pay their lawyer for the entire case. Finally, a good Bankruptcy lawyer will, if necessary, explain why Bankruptcy may not be the best option for you at this time, or the possible negative consequences of filing. If a lawyer (or paralegal) is only interested in getting you in the door, taking money for a fee, and having you start paperwork without a thorough discussion about your financial circumstances, you need to look for a new Bankruptcy lawyer. That leads us back to the original question: How do I find a good Bankruptcy lawyer? Here are a few guidelines:
- Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. An experienced Bankruptcy lawyer is going to take the time to personally meet and speak with you, and review your financial situation in detail. The same lawyer will be with you for the entire case. This takes more time, and costs a little more money, but it is well worth it for most clients. On the other end of the spectrum are the “volume” consumer firms that market heavily, advertise their low prices or payment plans, have multiple locations, and tout their experience in filing thousands of cases over the years. The first page of google results usually consists of these firms as they pay a significant amount of money for the listings. The reality is that the firm may have filed thousands of cases, but you will likely deal with paralegals or a series of first and second year lawyers. You will likely see a lawyer for one part of the process and never see him or her again. If you have to go to Court or your creditor meeting, you will meet your lawyer-for-the-day when they call out your name. These firms rely on volume and a system of driving clients through the system in an efficient manner, much like an factory assembly line. If there is a complication in your case, it may be more difficult to timely resolve as it may have to be passed to yet another lawyer. Clients normally make it through the process, but it often comes at a cost.
- Bankruptcy experience is important. A good Bankruptcy lawyer has spent many years learning the craft, understands every step of the process and knows what Judges and Trustees expect. A good lawyer can avoid many potential pitfalls in a case – often far more than the client realizes. While it is not always necessary to hire a lawyer with 30-40 years of Bankruptcy experience, it is important to find a lawyer with many years of experience in a Bankruptcy practice. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to find this information. When the economy crashed several years ago, many non-Bankruptcy lawyers thought switching practice areas would be lucrative. Law firm websites were created to advertise Bankruptcy and “twenty years of experience” when in reality that experience was in real estate closings. Do not be afraid to ask about the lawyer’s experience in Bankruptcy.
- Expertise is important. In short, you want a lawyer who knows what she is doing, regardless of how long they have been doing it. We usually have to judge this based on what the lawyer tells us, whether it is in person, on the phone, or on their website. Spend a few minutes digging a little deeper. Does the lawyer regularly participate in a Blog such as this one, or another Blog? Regular posting indicates the lawyer keeps up with new developments and cases. Has the lawyer spoken at seminars and continuing education programs? Has the lawyer served in a leadership capacity in Bar associations? We often advertise our membership in great organizations such as the American Bar Association and National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, but look for a lawyer who is active in the Bankruptcy community and does not just write a check for membership fees. If, on the other hand, a lawyer’s website lists Bankruptcy down the list of several other practice areas (real estate, divorce, criminal, etc.), it is a sign that the lawyer may not focus on Bankruptcy. There are still many great general practitioners who are good at many things, but for a Bankruptcy case you should look for experience and expertise.
- Ask for referrals. If you know a lawyer or accountant you trust, ask him or her for a referral to a good Bankruptcy lawyer. Most lawyers view referrals almost as importantly as they do their own cases and if they do not know of a good lawyer, they will work to find one for you. Make sure you do your own homework to make sure the referral lawyer meets the qualifications discussed in this post. One point of caution, however, is that your lawyer friend may offer to handle your case at a reduced fee or even for free. Although your friend will have the best of intentions in doing you a favor, if your friend was a Bankruptcy lawyer you would probably know it. If your friend is not an experienced Bankruptcy lawyer, politely decline the offer and get a referral.
- Make appointments for a telephone or office conference. There is no substitute for having a conversation with the lawyer who would be handling your case. Virtually all Bankruptcy lawyers will offer a consultation at no cost. A good lawyer will not only listen to you, they will ask questions. They will likely ask you to gather more documents for review. They will not just give you a sales pitch on how Bankruptcy will help you, they will tell you what to expect in the process and the possible negatives you may encounter. Keep in mind that after you file a case, it is more difficult to change lawyers and there are often negative consequences for changing your mind about the filing.
- Petition Preparers are not a substitute for a lawyer. With the increase in Bankruptcy filings over the last several years, new services have popped up to offer petition preparation services. These services are not substitute for a lawyer. In fact, petition preparers, by law, are limited to merely filling in the forms based on information you provide. They are not allowed to tell you what information to put in the forms and are barred from giving any legal advice in any way, shape or form. Basically, if the petition preparer is acting within the law (and many do) they are a typing service. These services have become such a detriment to clients and the Bankruptcy system, Congress had to enact more regulations concerning this practice. Rarely a month goes by in Georgia that the U.S. Trustee does not file a lawsuit against a petition preparer who has violated the law. The clients of these services have suffered by not hiring a lawyer, since the lawsuit generally means that a big problem has arisen in the case and the U.S. Trustee has been alerted. Keep in mind that even if the preparer has acted improperly, the client is fully responsible for any errors or omissions in the petition and schedules.
With this information, you are ready to find a lawyer. Do not be afraid to ask tough questions, and do not be afraid to meet with a lawyer or two even if you are not sure you need or want to file. While I am confident the lawyers who participate in this Blog are well qualified to handle any case, take some time to look at our websites and other blogs. Call one of us to discuss your circumstances. If you need a lawyer in a city in Georgia beyond our practice areas, we will find a good lawyer in your area.