How do I choose a good bankruptcy attorney?

How Do I Find a Good Bankruptcy Lawyer?

People look to the Internet to find answers to questions about a wide variety of legal problems. Probably the most frequently given answer is that legal advice can’t be given over a public forum, in line with the standard disclaimer:

“The above does not constitute legal opinion and is offered for the purposes of discussion only. The law differs in every jurisdiction, and you should not rely on any opinion except that of an attorney you have retained, who has a professional duty to advise you after being fully informed of all the pertinent facts and who is familiar with the applicable law.”

So the next question people ask is, if they don’t already know a good bankruptcy lawyer, and perhaps have never needed a lawyer before, how do they go about finding a good lawyer? This FAQ will talk about different ways to find a knowledgeable and experienced bankruptcy attorney. Whatever method you use, don’t be reluctant to interview several lawyers until you find one you’re comfortable with.

How Do I Make An Appointment? Most lawyers are interested in new clients—I certainly am. When you call for a consultation, you don’t need to give a detailed explanation to whomever answers the phone. Just say that you wanted to speak with the attorney about a new bankruptcy case, and let them know if there’s an emergency that makes a quick appointment necessary—a foreclosure, repossession, bank attachment, garnishment or lawsuit. No two words will get an attorney to return a call faster than the magic phrase, “new client.”

Some firms will charge for an initial consultation; many do not, depending on where you live, the type of case, and local practice. (We do not, in most cases.) Make sure you understand the policy before you go in. Charging for the first meeting doesn’t mean the firm is greedy; some use this as a screening device, to make sure you’re serious about your case. It can also mean that the firm is good enough, and busy enough, that they can be selective about accepting new cases.

What About the Yellow Pages or Online Ads? The Yellow Pages and online ads should be your last resort. This is unfortunate, because they are convenient. It would be unfair to assume, just because a law firm has a big ad, that it couldn’t handle your case well. However, the only qualification needed to place a big ad is to be able to pay for it. Some good lawyers advertise heavily, but many other good lawyers advertise sparingly, or not at all. Lawyers who are happy with the size of their firm and get all the work they can handle from referrals by other lawyers and satisfied clients don’t need to advertise.

Can the Bar Association Help Me? Most local county bar associations run a Lawyer Referral Service. They maintain lists of lawyers who handle bankruptcy cases and are willing to consult with new clients. Sometimes a nominal fee will be charged for an initial meeting. The Service in your area will be happy to explain the procedure. Just as with running an ad, however, any lawyer who joins the bar association and signs up for the referral service can be on the referral list. The Bar Association does not perform screening or rating of the attorneys. The listings include attorneys of all skill and experience levels.

Can’t I Find a Lawyer Through the Internet? Often you can. The lawyers who post on bankruptcylawnetwork.com, or are members of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (nacba.org), generally will take new clients. If you email them a question, it’s quite likely that they be able to help, or to give you the name of someone who can. For your message to be most effective, please do the following:

1. In the subject line for the message header, try to give the nature of your need. Examples: “New Bankruptcy Client Question,” “Help With a Garnishment” or “Foreclosure Next Month.” That way, we know why you’re contacting us.

2. In the body of your message, give a brief summary of your situation—no more than a paragraph. Note that while the reasons why you got into financial difficulties are probably the most important issues for you, the problems you’re facing now are probably the most important issues for your lawyer to know.

3. Also, in the message, spell out the city or town involved. And if any time deadlines are approaching, such as a foreclosure, repossession, bank attachment, garnishment or lawsuit, mention them.

What’s the Best Way to Find a Good Lawyer? The best way is the old-fashioned way: personal referral and word of mouth. If you know any lawyers, even if they don’t handle your type of case, ask them for recommendations. Ask friends, family, clergy, people at work, union officials, club members, at the corner tavern or beauty salon. You would be surprised at how many people you know have used a bankruptcy lawyer!

You could also ask for the name and telephone number of the company lawyer for your employer. Business lawyers very often know who the best bankruptcy lawyers are in their area. And they can make an initial assessment of your case in determining who to recommend, and because of their relationship with the company, will try to see that you’re satisfied.

Lawyers are the best source of information about other lawyers. Establish a relationship with a lawyer before problems come up and have him or her do some little things for you, like prepare a will, handle a speeding ticket or a residential real estate deal, review a contract, form a closely held corporation, etc. Is he or she responsive? Understanding? Prompt? Does he or she explain things clearly? Does he or she keep you informed without being asked? If the lawyer doesn’t know the answer, does he or she admit it and then go find out for you? Then, when you have a big legal problem, you won’t have to rush out and interview a bunch of strangers. You’ve already got somebody you can trust. If he or she can’t handle the big matter, he or she can find you the right lawyer who can.

What’s the Worst Way? Yes, there is something worse than the Yellow Pages or online ads. Be aware that it is highly unethical for a lawyer to pay a referral fee, bonus, or kickback for “leads” on new cases. (Depending on state law, a referral fee sometimes may be paid to another lawyer, but there should be disclosure and client consent for any fee-sharing). Some of the profession’s “bad apples” may still engage in the practice of paying “runners” for tips on new clients. So if someone seems unduly insistent that you see a particular lawyer, or just happens to have a supply of the lawyer’s cards to give you one, look out! This may not be the kind of person who deserves your trust.

 

What Questions Should I Ask? Not all of these questions are appropriate for every case, but here are some things that could be discussed. Please be sensitive to the fact that the lawyer can’t predict the future, control the court’s scheduling, or know what your opponent may do to make things harder:

  • What experience do you have with this type of case (how many years; how many cases now, how many in the past)?
  • What are the possible outcomes (best/worst case scenarios; how long might it take to resolve)?
  • How will you let me know what’s going on in the case?
  • What can I do to help as the case goes forward? What other information will you need?
  • Will anyone else be working on the case?
  • For fixed or flat fee cases (most consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases are handled on a flat fee basis): What will be covered by this fee? What about appeals? What if something happens to make the case more complicated?
  • For hourly fee cases (most Chapter 11 cases are handled on an hourly basis): What is your hourly rate? Can some of the work be delegated to paralegals or junior attorneys? If so, what will their rate be? How often do you send out bills? Do you need an advance retainer (not really necessary to ask this one; the attorney will certainly say so)?
  • What about expenses? What kind of expenses do you charge for and how are they calculated? How much do you charge for copies, faxes, etc.?
  • Can you give a ballpark estimate on the total fees? Can you put that in writing?
  • What will happen if we have a disagreement about the fees?

Here’s hoping that your search for legal counsel brings you together with an attorney you can trust and respect. Good luck!