How to Pick a Bankruptcy Attorney

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 Attorneys,  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 bankruptcy.

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. Chapter 7, 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.

Chapter 13 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 time.”

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 some respect.

A fee commensurate with service

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 creditors meeting, and if  there is a problem, they won’t be prepared to handle it properly.”

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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Courtesy of Fox Business.

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