Bankruptcy law is complicated, and hiring a knowledgeable bankruptcy attorney is a good way to avoid a making a mistake that could result in losing valuable property. Fortunately, most lawyers who don’t regularly practice in the area recognize that it’s best to stay away from bankruptcy entirely, but that’s not always the case. In this article, you’ll learn tips that will help you select a lawyer who can get you through the process without incident so that you can fully take advantage of your fresh start.
Finding (and Researching) Potential Bankruptcy Attorneys
If you’ve never filed for bankruptcy before, you probably don’t have an attorney lined up, and finding one can be a daunting process. If you aren’t sure where to start, these ideas will point you in the right direction.
- Friends and family. Ask for a legal referral to someone who has provided excellent service in the past. Don’t worry if you get the name of someone who isn’t a bankruptcy attorney, simply call the lawyer’s office and ask the office staff who they recommend when clients have bankruptcy needs.
- Internet search. Use the internet to search for a local bankruptcy attorney. You’ll quickly find a list of lawyers practicing in your area.
- Reputable referral site. You can also find bankruptcy lawyers using sites such as Lawyers.com, the American Bar Association, or a local association of attorneys.
Once you’ve compiled a list of promising names, you can whittle it down by doing preliminary research. For instance, it’s a good practice to check your state’s bar association to find out if the attorney has a record of discipline—it happens more often than you might think. You can also look online for client reviews, news articles, and other information that might provide insight into the attorney’s reputation and competence.
Contacting the Attorneys on Your List
Once you develop your list, you’ll want to speak with each of the candidates. If you’re short on time and would like to speed up the process, consider using the following approach:
- Start interviewing over the telephone. Many attorneys will answer general questions over the phone. By asking questions, you’ll be able to form an initial impression without taking the time to meet in person. If you’re not comfortable with someone, strike them from your list.
- Make an appointment. Set up an in-person consultation with each of the most promising lawyers.
Don’t be surprised if you aren’t able to speak with the lawyer over the phone—it’s common in a busy office. Instead, form an opinion based on your interactions with the staff, especially since you might find yourself working more with the staff than the attorney if you choose to retain that office.
(To make the most of your consultation, read Bankruptcy: Preparing to Meet with a Lawyer.)
Preparing for the Initial Meeting
In the bankruptcy arena, many options exist, so with a little effort, you’ll be able to retain the right attorney for an amount that you can afford. To make sure that your selection is a good fit, consider the following before the consultation:
- the experience level and personality of a lawyer you’d like to work with
- the complexity of your case, and
- the type of firm the lawyer works in.
How to Determine Your Lawyer’s Qualifications
First and foremost, it’s imperative to choose an attorney with enough experience to handle your case. So how are you to know if a lawyer is competent? Ask questions. Here are a few you won’t want to forget:
- When did you start practicing bankruptcy law (and law in general)?
- How many cases do you file per year?
- Do you file each bankruptcy chapter type? Which do you handle the most?
- Do you practice another area of law?
Also, the type of firm the attorney works in can give you some indication of what you can expect. You’ll find bankruptcy attorneys in different types of offices.
Bankruptcy firm. Firms that practice bankruptcy law exclusively often offer services at a low price and can be a good deal for a client with a simple case. However, a client with a complicated matter—or someone who needs a lot of instruction—might not feel that the attorney is sufficiently available. How can you recognize these types of firms? Trust your instincts. You’ll get the impression that the entity is a well-oiled machine set up to process a high volume of cases. These firms tend to advertise heavily, too.
Sole practitioner. It’s common for sole practitioners to do a variety of different types of law, so if you choose to go with a single attorney office, you’ll want to be sure that the lawyer has sufficient bankruptcy experience. Also, the amount of attention and expertise that you’ll get from a sole practitioner will vary depending upon the individual attorney.
Multi-practice firm. This type of practice usually offers a high level of experience, but it can come with a hefty price tag more easily afforded by businesses and corporate clients.
Remember that it’s important to hire an attorney who regularly files bankruptcy cases because it’s difficult to grasp the complexities without consistently practicing in the field. Also, be sure to ask specific questions about your case. If you don’t receive clear, easy-to-understand answers that demonstrate the attorney’s working knowledge, don’t look past it. Talk with someone else.
(To learn more things that you should know before choosing a lawyer, read Chapter 7 Bankruptcy: How Much Does It Cost?)
Does the Attorney Care About Your Case?
Most people want to hire someone who will work hard to solve their particular problems. An attorney who will conscientiously handle your case will do the following:
- Allow you to explain your financial situation entirely.
- Ask questions about your problems and goals.
- Discuss solutions other than bankruptcy.
- Inform you of potential problems with your case.
- Answer all of your questions with a sincere willingness to help.
Ultimately, if you get the impression that you’ll work well with a particular attorney and feel confident that they’ll do a good job (they meet all of the above criteria), it will likely be a good fit.
How Complicated Is Your Matter?
The simpler your case, the less you should have to pay—and you might be able to rely on a less experienced attorney (although you should never forgo basic competence).
So what are characteristics of a simple case? Most lawyers would agree that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filer who can keep (exempt) all property, has a limited number of debts owed to creditors, and whose income is well within the qualifying range would qualify as a straightforward case. Additionally, the filer wouldn’t have the following complications (this is a partial list):
- business interests
- pending lawsuits
- recent purchases of luxury goods on credit
- recent property transfers, or
- a potential accusation of fraud.
If your case is free of all of the above, you might be able to negotiate a reduced fee. If you have a more complicated matter, however, expect to pay more. And again—because it can’t be stressed enough—always be sure that your attorney has the experience necessary to handle your issues.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Have you been practicing bankruptcy law long?
- Is filing for bankruptcy the best option for me?
- Do you anticipate any problems with my bankruptcy case?