That's it, you're done. After struggling to pay your debts,
you're ready to consider bankruptcy. It's time to contact a
bankruptcy lawyer, but which one? Some advertise on TV and
radio, others on billboards and bus stops. They seem fine, but you
can't tell for sure. Asking friends for a recommendation is rather
awkward. A discrete online search, maybe?
Filing for bankruptcy is a serious step, requiring excellent
advice and the right representation. Here's how to find, and then
choose, the best bankruptcy attorney for you.
Signals of professionalism
To get started, check the
National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy
, says Philadelphia lawyer Michael Duffy. Membership in this
organization indicates that the firm or lawyer is "dedicated to the
practice of bankruptcy, stays up to date on the latest
developments, and provides competent representation."
Once you find members in your area, visit your
state bar's website
to find out if they're certified. "Most states have specialist
certifications for bankruptcy," says NACBA President Edward Boltz.
This certification means the lawyer has been practicing law for a
minimum number of years, spends at least half his or her time
working with bankruptcy cases, is peer reviewed and has passed a
written examination in that specialty.
Such associations and credentials provide assurance that the
lawyer has practical knowledge and will know what to do in case
something goes wrong. "It's insurance," says Boltz. "A lot of cases
are straightforward, but no one realizes how fast they can go south
until they're going through it."
Prepare to meet with a few
After you've identified a few lawyers or firms you'd like to
explore further, view their websites. They should contain clearly
written educational information and downloadable financial forms
that you can fill out that to help you determine if you qualify for
Then, start to schedule some appointments. "Most lawyers will
give a free consultation," says Boltz. "It's helpful to go to see
more than one. Not to price shop, but to gauge how comfortable you
are with them."
Before you meet, complete the forms available on the website (if
they offer them) and bring them with you. Write down any questions
you might have and bring them, too.
Qualities to look for in a bankruptcy lawyer
Personality and professionalism matter, and -- like anyone -- a
lawyer who appears terrific on paper can fall short in person. It's
critical that you trust that the person you hire will be working in
your best interest. Look for the following three qualities
during your consultation.
1. They discuss alternate resolutions.
, a complete cancellation of eligible debts, might not be the best
or only way to deal with your financial problems. If there are
other options, an ethical lawyer will present them.
"With each case, I always weigh the options," says San Francisco
bankruptcy lawyer Jeena Cho. "Sometimes I suggest that a client
just pay his bills. This situation comes up if the client is making
too much money or has too many assets. The other advice I give
sometimes is to do nothing. This can happen for those who are
'collection proof,' meaning they have nothing the creditors can
take in case of a judgment."
Another suggestion might be a credit counselor's formal
debt management plan
, especially if most of your lenders are credit card companies. The
interest rate reduction the agency may be able to secure can
translate into lower payments.
bankruptcy, a court-supervised payment arrangement, might also be
on the table. A lawyer may recommend it if you have enough income
to support at least some of your liabilities and own property that
could be taken in a Chapter 7 or a lawsuit.
Understanding the full menu of resolutions and then choosing
from them reduces the possibility that you will regret making the
decision to file for bankruptcy.
2. They display a passion for the process.
You wouldn't have a heart operation performed by a indifferent
surgeon, nor would you want the person representing you in
bankruptcy court to be distant or aloof. Therefore, the lawyer
you're considering should exude a genuine passion for the
occupation and process. Find out why he or she chose to specialize
in bankruptcy law. Listen carefully to the response. Many lawyers
find the work fascinating and rewarding.
"I got into it over 30 years ago and I still love it," says
Dallas lawyer Herman Lusky, "When people leave their debts behind,
they can become active members of society again."
John Hargrave, a lawyer whose firm is located in Barrington,
N.J., has a similar attitude. "By working with people I can make
their lives dramatically better. There are few other areas, if any,
where a lawyer can do so much good for someone in a short amount of
3. They hear and understand you.
For most people, declaring bankruptcy is a painful decision.
Because of the emotions involved, you'll want your attorney to not
just to have the proper credentials, but to exhibit a desire to
understand your specific situation and goals. Your lawyer should
possess empathy and a willingness to take the time to ask probing
(sometimes difficult) questions.
"Only hire someone who wants to know what led to your financial
predicament," says Hargrove. "Someone who will can address what
your biggest worries are."
Not all lawyers have great bedside (or courtside) manners, so
after the meeting, ask yourself if you're truly comfortable with
that person and if all of your concerns were addressed. If you feel
like a number rather than an individual, cross that lawyer off your
list and move on to the next until you find one who treats you with
A fee com
And finally, the fee. Lawyers, even those who help you not pay your
creditors, aren't free. The cost varies by complexity and location,
but in general is between $800 and $2,500 from start to finish.
Avoid ultra-low-rate bankruptcy mills that advertise heavily and
crank out the cases. "They usually only have a few lawyers and a
large number of legal assistants," says Lusky. "For a simple
run-of-the-mill case, they're probably OK , but you don't know when
complications may arise. The first time you meet with your lawyer
would be at the
, and if there is a problem, they won't be prepared to handle it
Don't presume you get more for hiring the most expensive lawyer
on the block, however, or less if you scrape the bottom of the
price barrel. "Fees are determined by the market," says Lusky. "In
some areas, caps are set by the courts. This means that, for the
same price, the client can usually get an experienced, highly
qualified lawyer for the same price as a novice." Be sure to ask
what it covers, though, as some attorneys include court and other
costs in the quoted fee, others don't.
Once you've found the person who possesses the ideal combination
of experience, character and cost, you're set. If you choose to
move forward with filing, you can do so with assurance that you're
working with a lawyer you can trust.
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