Rules for Cold-Calling Prospective Bankruptcy Attorneys

02 Jul Rules for Cold-Calling Prospective Bankruptcy Attorneys

Inspired by a Popehat post regarding cold-calling attorneys in general, I decided to rant a bit about cold-calling bankruptcy attorneys, and in particular the persistent requests I get to (1) answer “general” bankruptcy questions “real quick” on the phone, and (2) give a “real quick” fee quote to the caller.

(First digression: Here in the South, we rarely use one word when two or more will do. We don’t “go” anywhere, but we are often “fixin’ to go.” We don’t do anything “quick” when we can do it “real quick.” And we rarely go anywhere–here, there, or yonder–that we don’t also go “up,” “down,” or “over.” It takes us a while to say anything, but we are charming as we do it.)

Ken at Popehat gets right to the point:

Let me start by saying this: you shouldn’t be cold-calling a lawyer in the first place.

….

If you need a lawyer, you should be calling one based on the recommendation of someone you trust.

True, to a certain extent. The problem with that and bankruptcy lawyers is that no one wants to (a) admit that he needs a bankruptcy lawyer to his friends and family, and (b) admit that he once had a bankruptcy lawyer. So, unless you happen to have a close friend or family member who is willing to admit to running into financial trouble once upon a time, AND is willing to swallow his pride and discuss it with you, you may have to rely on something other than referrals to help you find a bankruptcy lawyer. But, once having armed yourself with the name and phone number of one or more bankruptcy lawyers, here is what you should do: Call and make an appointment to go see the lawyer. Period.

Notice that I didn’t say that you should ask a for a fee quote. Frankly, there are so many problems with choosing a bankruptcy lawyer based on the fees they are willing to quote you over the phone, I can barely number them. But I’ll make a start:

  • If you are getting a firm fee quote (either over the phone or in some kind of advertising) then there is a good possibility that you are being overcharged. If a good attorney is going to quote a one-size-fits-all fee, then he’s going to estimate high, and if you don’t have a complicated case, you are going to pay too much.
  • There is also a good (maybe better) possibility that you are not getting a good attorney, but rather one who is either so desperate for business that he doesn’t care that he’s undercharging you, or one who is going to change the terms on you later.
  • If you choose your lawyer based on what they charge, you may be getting what you pay for. The best lawyers don’t always charge the most (in fact, I would say that is rarely the case) but it is often true that the cheapest lawyers aren’t worth what you pay them.
  • By choosing a lawyer based on cost, you are communicating to that lawyer and her staff that you really don’t care about the quality of the representation you are getting, and you will likely be treated accordingly. It’s your case; don’t expect the lawyer or her staff to care more than you do.
  • You are communicating to the lawyer and her staff that you don’t value the time and attention that they are supposed to give to your case. It doesn’t set you up for the best relationship with your lawyer, if she decides to take your case, but even worse is the fact that many lawyers will simply not take your case. If we are in a position to be choosy in the cases we take, why would we choose to represent someone who doesn’t value our experience and advice?
  • If you decide that any lawyer is too expensive, and you are going to represent yourself, you have a fool for a client.

That should be enough to give you the gist. It’s just not a good basis upon which to choose a bankruptcy lawyer.

The rest of what Ken at Popehat says about preparing for an initial phone call with a lawyer applies pretty well to the initial consultation that you should have with one or more attorneys that you have chosen for their reputation and expertise (or both), not for the relative paltriness of the fees they quote you. In a nutshell, those points can be summarized as follows:

  • Prepare for the meeting. This means bringing with you the documentation that the lawyer asks you to bring, as well as anything you have received that gives you concern. If you are seeing a bankruptcy lawyer because you are worried about losing your home to foreclosure, bring the foreclosure papers with you. If you don’t, the lawyer will “suspect that representing you will frequently involve gritting his teeth to stop from screaming at you.”

(Second digression: I ask prospective clients to fill out a one-page questionnaire–less information than your doctor asks you for–and provide a list of creditors and how much they owe to those creditors. I can’t begin to tell you how many people show up for their appointment without doing me the courtesy of filling out that basic information. Well, newsflash, my assistant won’t let you in my office until you do that. Even so, it annoys me in the extreme when I have to wait for you to fill that stuff out while you are sitting in my waiting room, throwing my entire schedule for the day into chaos.)

  • Have an idea of what you want, and what your main concerns are. If you are mainly concerned with keeping your home, my focus may be different than if you just want to start over fresh. Think about your priorities, and try to succinctly articulate what you are trying to accomplish. That’s right, I said succinctly. Don’t worry that this is your one and only chance to tell your story. A good lawyer will ask pertinent follow-up questions.
  • Don’t be a know-it-all. You are consulting with a bankruptcy lawyer because that lawyer has specialized expertise that you don’t have. Your relationship with your lawyer is not a competition that you have to win; nor do you need someone to tell you what you want to hear. Sometimes the best advice is something you don’t want to hear–something in your situation means that you can’t get the relief you wanted, or seeking that relief will have consequences you don’t want to endure. But you need to know what those are, and a lawyer who doesn’t tell you because it’s going to upset you isn’t a very good lawyer, is she?
  • Give a little thought to timing. Sometimes time is short and it isn’t your fault, but generally your lawyer is going to know whether that is true or not. In my practice, in the best of times, it takes at least four or five months to get a foreclosure to the point of a sale; with current rules and dockets, it takes much longer. So, when I get a call from a prospective client on Wednesday, whose property is going up for sale the following Monday, I’m pretty well clued in that this guy has procrastinated, and that in the unlikely event that I can be of any help at all, he is not going to change his ways. Bottom line, I won’t take his case, and there aren’t many others who will, either. By the same token, it really isn’t necessary to demand an immediate appointment with a lawyer based on the mere threat of a lawsuit. A good lawyer is going to appreciate a client who acts promptly, but not precipitously.
  • Lawyers are sort of like people, too. We appreciate your courtesy and cooperation, and we get annoyed at lack of courtesy and procrastination. Bankruptcy lawyers in particular are annoyed bydisingenuousness (i.e., we don’t care for liers), and we are pretty quick to pick up on those cues. You are building a relationship with your lawyer, and it will go better for you if it is a positive one.

 

 

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Däna (pronounced "Donna") Wilkinson, has been a bankruptcy lawyer in South Carolina for 20 years. She is certified as a bankruptcy specialist by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
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