Your Bankruptcy Lawyer–Experience Matters

22 Jul Your Bankruptcy Lawyer–Experience Matters

Experience Matters

How do you go about choosing your bankruptcy lawyer? Most people never expect to be faced with bankruptcy. Then there’s the embarrassment factor. Facing bankruptcy is not something that most people are anxious to share with friends and neighbors. It’s not like asking for advice about a hairdresser or lawn service. So how do you know who to choose?

The most important factor in choosing a bankruptcy lawyer is experience. All you have to do is read a few posts on Bankruptcy Law Network to understand the difference experience can make. From how to make your budget work in a chapter 13, to the key differences between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13, to what happens when the unexpected happens while you’re in Chapter 13, to which exemption scheme applies to you, to how your business may be affected by bankruptcy, these posts are just a few examples of the questions that can arise in what may seem a simple ordinary bankruptcy case.

Bankruptcy is an extremely complex area of the law. Proceeding without a lawyer can be extremely risky. Proceeding with a lawyer who is not well-versed in bankruptcy law and procedural rules can be just as, or perhaps more, risky. And, though we all had to start somewhere, you would be quite justified in deciding that you don’t want to be the guinea pig for someone’s first foray into the Bankruptcy Court. Your goal is to get to the end of your case, when the court enters an order that prohibits your creditors from continuing to try to collect from you. You want that order to resolve as much debt as possible, and you want to get there as efficiently as possible. There are decisions and judgment calls to be made all along the way. Contrary to what some people believe, it’s not just a question of filling out a set of forms and handing them in.

My office regularly receives calls from people who ask the same basic question: how much do you charge for a simple bankruptcy? I can answer that question, but it would be misleading. Unless you have some expertise in bankruptcy law and practice, how do you know you have a simple bankruptcy case? Your bankruptcy case can be affected by questions as simple as how long you’ve been living at your current location, or how long it’s been since you filed your tax returns.

So how do you know how much experience is enough experience? And how do you find out how much experience a lawyer has? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. I do think you need to do your homework, and find out something about the lawyer that you’re going to see. I also think that you have the right, and frankly the obligation to yourself, to ask questions. You can ask questions about the lawyer’s experience. You can look up a lawyer’s resume on her website, or on your state bar’s website. You can and should ask questions about your case, and you should be comfortable with the attorney’s answers to your questions. You should have some level of comfort that the lawyer is familiar with how bankruptcy will affect your situation.

You should also know who you are meeting with, or talking to, whether by phone, in person, or online. Are you meeting with a lawyer, or are you meeting with a paralegal? When does a lawyer become involved in the decision-making process in your case? There are all kinds of ways to handle the decision-making process as it relates to a bankruptcy filing, but you have the right to know what that process is, and not be misled about who is making those decisions, and what level of expertise that person has.

I think my clients are often reluctant to admit it to me, but my impression is that many, if not most, visit more than one bankruptcy lawyer before choosing one. I think that’s a good idea. I also think that many prospective clients go into the process with one overriding concern, i.e., the cost of bankruptcy. The outcome of your bankruptcy case may be proof positive of the old adage,” you get what you pay for.” The irony of the focus on cost for many people is that it backfires. It always costs more to straighten out a mess than to prevent the mess in the first place. It’s also important to compare apples to apples. In districts where the practice of unbundling of legal services is permitted, (and even in some places where it isn’t) you may find that the difference in cost from one attorney to the next is the difference in the services the attorney is to provide.

Yes, an experienced bankruptcy attorney may (and I emphasize “may”) cost more than someone who just “dabbles,” or who has just hung out a shingle and will take whatever fee-producing matter comes along. But remember this. The reason you are hiring a bankruptcy lawyer is that you don’t know enough about bankruptcy to identify the pitfalls. Find someone who does.

Image: Cimmerian/iStock

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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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