Maybe you have seen the words “debt relief agency” on a lawyer’s website or other marketing materials. The phrase “debt relief” has been used for many years as a substitute for the word “bankruptcy,” most likely because it sounds a little less ominous. Many years ago, a lawyer in the Atlanta area, and one of the first to use mass television advertising, stressed the phrase “debt relief, settlement protection” in his commercials. You can view the commercial in this video from 1992 (skip to the 5:15 and 7:20 marks). His commercials often did not even mention the word “Bankruptcy,” and even today many people believe Chapter 13 is not really bankruptcy. But what about this “debt relief agency” business? Is it just a convenient way for lawyers to avoid saying they are Bankruptcy lawyers? Not really, although there are definitely some marketing tactics in play.
When Congress overhauled the Bankruptcy laws in 2005, one of the things they added was a requirement that Bankruptcy lawyers, petition preparers and others who provide “bankruptcy assistance” to individuals state the following on advertisements: “‘We are a debt relief agency. We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code.’ or a substantially similar statement.” Thus, according to this, all Bankruptcy lawyers are “debt relief agencies.” Petition preparers who merely type information on forms are “debt relief agencies,” as are counseling services and so on. Local courts may include or exclude other types of service providers. What does this mean to you as a client? Absolutely nothing! It is merely our Congress at work, enacting laws that, at best, are meaningless and only add burden and confusion. It is just a meaningless label, that is completely unrelated to experience or competence. It also lumps qualified lawyers in the same broad “agency” as unqualified lawyers who have never filed a case, petition preparers and others who do not even have to have so much as a night course in law.
As far as the “creative” marketing by Bankruptcy lawyers, most place the notice in small “mice type” at the very bottom of their materials. Others take a different approach and highlight that they are “designated,” “qualified,” or “certified” by Congress or federal law as a debt relief agency. The latter two I find misleading, as there are no qualifications whatsoever implied by the term and “certified” implies a lawyer has obtained additional training in a certain area. The bottom line is that if you are looking for a Bankruptcy lawyer, there is no substitute for taking the time to find a good lawyer in your area. You are placing your financial future in that lawyer’s hands, to a large extent.