If you are thinking about filing bankruptcy, possibly the most important decision you’ll make will be which attorney to hire to represent you in that bankruptcy. Your bankruptcy attorney will guide your decision-making throughout the process, from whether to file bankruptcy at all, when to file, and what type of bankruptcy is available, and most beneficial. You bankruptcy attorney will help you navigate the intricacies of the means test, will determine what exemption scheme is available to you and help you decide how to apply those exemptions. Your bankruptcy attorney will review your situation to identify any potential land mines, and should be there with you when you go to court, when you provide information to the trustee or your creditors, or in rare cases, when your case is audited.
Bankruptcy is one of a very few fields of expertise in the legal profession that is a recognized specialty. Many bankruptcy lawyers (myself included) don’t practice any other kind of law. In fact, I’ve never practiced any other kind of law. I’ve been practicing bankruptcy law for twenty-five years, and I still study new cases, and talk to other bankruptcy lawyers on a daily basis to maintain my expertise. I guess that’s why they call it “practice.” Bankruptcy law is an enormously detailed and intricate subject.
That’s why I maintain that there is no such thing as a “simple” bankruptcy case. Case in point: I met with a fellow recently who has a regular job, some credit card debt and medical bills, and not much property. His assets are fairly basic, too–a car and a boat. So, you might think that I didn’t have to use much of my expertise to advise him. Simple case, right? Well, not so much. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned moving, and when I checked with him, it turned out he had moved to South Carolina a little over two years ago. You wouldn’t think that would make a difference, but it does, and it would have affected the property he wants to keep. And that’s just one example; there are plenty of other surprising details lurking out there in bankruptcy land.
There is a great deal on ongoing discussion/controversy/moaning and groaning about the state of legal education right now. In a nut shell, law schools are graduating a lot more newly-minted lawyers than there are jobs for them. And traditionally the expectation has been that a lot of a new lawyer’s practical training would be provided by his first employer. In other words, law schools focus on teaching people how to think like lawyers; they leave it up to law firms and mentors to teach people how to practice law. The result: an awful lot of lawyers with minimal experience are being forced to fend for themselves. I’m not blaming them–most of them have student loan debt that makes my head hurt. But if I were out there looking for a lawyer (of any kind, but especially a bankruptcy lawyer) I wouldn’t necessarily want them to “practice” on me.
So how do you choose a bankruptcy lawyer? There are certainly factors to consider in addition to experience, but in my opinion experience ought to be right at the top of your list. Now, I can hear the cynics among you saying “Well, she’s experienced, of course she thinks experience should count.” And I can imagine some thinking that filing bankruptcy is just filling out a bunch of forms. But think back to what I said above. Do you really think that courts and bars would go to the trouble to test and certify specialists is it didn’t really matter? Do you think that there would be an entire division of the Justice Department whose job is to monitor and police bankruptcy cases if it was just filling out a bunch of forms? Yes, you need to have a decent working relationship with your bankruptcy lawyer, and yes, you should be satisfied that your lawyer is going to be reasonably responsive to you. But your lawyer’s personality isn’t going to get you through the bankruptcy process. And it doesn’t really matter if your attorney is available to answer your questions night and day if he doesn’t know the right answers. Experience and knowledge are key.
And now, to deal with the elephant in the room: what about fees? Isn’t an experienced bankruptcy lawyer going to cost more? Well, yes and no. An experienced bankruptcy lawyer might charge you a higher fee than someone who has little or no experience. But he might save you a lot more money if he prevents a mistake, or identifies a potential problem, or a way to make bankruptcy relief more comprehensive. And that really is the bottom line. Lack of an experienced bankruptcy lawyer (or lack of a lawyer at all) can leave you vulnerable to all sorts of problems. When it comes to choosing your bankruptcy lawyer, experience matters, and you really do get what you pay for.