You’ve weighed the pros and cons of declaring bankruptcy and you’ve decided your back is against the proverbial wall. What’s the next step once you’ve decided to declare bankruptcy? Picking the best lawyer to handle your bankruptcy case.
Believe it or not, in may jurisdictions you are allowed to file for bankruptcy pro se (without a lawyer), but the complexity of the Bankruptcy Code and the forms required to file for bankruptcy make legal consultation critical. If you do decide to file for bankruptcy pro se or alone, at least one consultation before filing is vital to insure you have met the filing requirements. Many bankruptcy lawyers offer a free initial consultation, though after that meeting they may charge an up-front fee of $750 to $1,500 (or more) per bankruptcy case, depending on it’s complexity.
Should You File Alone or with a Lawyer?
There’s really only one reason not to file for bankruptcy with a lawyer: available CASH on hand. If you can afford to pay a lawyer, you absolutely should hire one. Bear in mind that a lawyer is working for a living and since you’re there to get assistance in discharging any debt, he or she will want payment up front. Can you really blame them?
Why should you use a competent bankruptcy attorney?
- Experience: Nothing can take the place of experience and a good bankruptcy lawyer knows the players in the bankruptcy court, including the judges and clerks. A really good lawyer knows what buttons NOT to push with each judge and this experience could come in very handy.
- Knowledge: A good bankruptcy lawyer knows the Bankruptcy Code inside and out, including any last minute changes. He or she has usually worked on hundreds of bankruptcy cases. Yours will probably not be out of the ordinary.
- Paperwork: The correct term for your bankruptcy paperwork is “petition” because you are asking the judge to grant your request to discharge your debts. The process of completing and submitting all the forms required to file a bankruptcy petition is perhaps the most difficult and time consuming part of the process. Your bankruptcy lawyer will handle all of this for you, including filing your forms, the correct forms at the correct time with the correct office. If you can’t afford a bankruptcy lawyer but still need help with the forms, consider hiring a bankruptcy petition preparer (BPP), a professional trained to complete bankruptcy forms. BPPs charge $150 or so but are prohibited from offering any bankruptcy related advice—they just do the forms.
- Representation in court: Despite the proliferation of lawyer shows on TV, many bankruptcy filers have little or no ability to represent themselves within the legal system and justifiably don’t feel comfortable representing themselves in court. It doesn’t really work like Law & Order or L.A. Law! If you work with a lawyer, you’ll be required to appear in court only once. Your lawyer will attend this session with you and will then attend all other required court proceedings in your place. Without a lawyer, you must attend every court proceeding for your case.
- Negotiation with creditors: Before you file, you can refer all calls from creditors directly to your lawyer. After you file, they are prohibited from contacting you.
Where to Find a Bankruptcy Lawyer
If you decide to file with a lawyer (and you should), it’s critical to work with one who:
- Specializes in personal bankruptcy law
- Has a reputation for honesty and integrity
- Has the experience to handle your case
The best way to find a reputable lawyer is through a referral from someone you trust. But if you don’t know anyone who’s been through this process and can give you a reference, try using Legal Match to connect you to a professional attorney specializing in bankruptcy in your area. You can also contact your local or state bar association. Bar association websites typically include search features to enable you to search for lawyers in your area by expertise and location, very similar to the way Legal Match works. Just be aware that all a lawyer has to do to get listed on the bar association’s website is pay a fee, so don’t assume they’re reputable just because they’re listed.
Work only with bankruptcy lawyers who offer a free initial consultation. Use the consultation to assess the lawyer’s professionalism and expertise—he or she should never make any bold promises up front or guarantee you results.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions during this initial consultation. Lot’s of questions. Lot’s of tough questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for references (it helps if you’re willing to be a reference later). Ask how long they’ve been handling personal bankruptcies. How many years experience they have. Where they went to law school. Why they chose to practice bankruptcy law. Ask what the next step is. Ask what the sequence of events will be. Ask if there’s anything that concerns them about your case in particular.
Finally, remember that you’re about to turn your financial life upside down and you need to know the person who will be handling things. If you don’t feel 100 percent comfortable with this lawyer, move on. It’s your right and your responsibility to pick the best man or woman to handle this very difficult decision.
Note: I am not a lawyer and the information contained in this article should NOT be substituted for sound legal opinion, nor cited or relied upon as legal advice.