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According to the American Bar Association there are over 15,000 lawyers in Indiana. With so many lawyers, how do you decide who to trust? Here are the top 5 things to look for when choosing a bankruptcy lawyer:
1. You get what you pay for.
Cost is often the first consideration when searching for a bankruptcy lawyer. But don’t let cost alone be a determining factor in who you choose. The average chapter 7 case can range from $750 to $2,500 depending on complexity. However, courts often cap how much a lawyer can make on a given case. And those lawyers that routinely handle bankruptcy matters tend to charge fees falling towards the middle of this range.
Keep in mind that most bankruptcy lawyers rely on standard fee agreements. These agreements detail what is covered and what is not. Be sure to review the fee agreement so you can accurately compare what services you’re receiving for your money. For example, do you expect issues with creditors? If so, objection to claims, adversarial proceedings, and litigation are often not covered. Instead, these matters are charged on an hourly basis, or the lawyer may decline representation and refer you to another lawyer.
Red Flag Alert: If a lawyer is offering representation that is drastically lower than other lawyers in the area, be wary. This should be a red flag that either the lawyer isn’t handling your case personally, the scope of services is very limited, or the lawyer really doesn’t do much bankruptcy work. Before handing over your hard-earned money, be sure to review the fee agreement to see what services are actually included.
2. Don’t get run through a mill.
Unfortunately, many consumers fall into the hands of what lawyers call a bankruptcy mill: a firm that churns and burns cases with little regard for their client’s specific needs.
These firms are notorious for shoddy legal work, unhappy clients, and raising the suspicion of trustees and judges who may feel that the system is being gamed or abused. Given that the bankruptcy system relies on honesty and trust between all parties, the last thing you need is extra scrutiny by the case trustee if there is an error or omission in your petition.
Red Flag Alert: It can be difficult to spot a mill at first. However, there are many warning signs:
- Be cautious of “low-fee” and “filing fee only” bankruptcy services. These cases are pushed down to paralegals and legal assistants as much as possible. In turn, personal service is often sacrificed in the name of profit.
- When you call to schedule a consultation, ask who you will meet with. Not meeting with an actual lawyer at the initial consultation is a big warning sign.
- At some mills, the first time you meet your lawyer is at the meeting of creditors. This is a really bad sign. Picture this – you’re sitting in a large conference room with several other people. This is likely the first time you’ve ever been to court, and frankly, it’s terrifying. No one has talked to you about what to expect, you’re wondering if any creditors are going to show up, and you’re scared to death of what the trustee may do. Then, someone you don’t recognize walks through the door, scans the room, and loudly shouts your name. As they approach, they stick out their hand and say “Hi, I’m your attorney for today.” REALLY? You’re already stressed, worried sick, and now you’re forced to place your trust in a complete stranger? This is how a mill practices, and unfortunately, I see it all the time.
- Ask how many cases an attorney handles at a given time. If an attorney handles more than 30 bankruptcies per month, then it’s a safe bet you’re dealing with a mill.
- Be on the alert for quick, superficial initial consultations. Even uncomplicated cases generally require an hour-long consultation. Not only is this time needed to discuss the client’s income over the prior six months and the present value of their assets, but also to dive into what triggered the decision to file for bankruptcy and whether there are any nuances that may impact the client’s case.
3. Depth of knowledge.
Would you rely on your family physician to remove a brain tumor? Likely not. The same goes for bankruptcy practice. Any lawyer can handle a bankruptcy, but in reality, only those who usually handle such cases are worth using.
Don’t use length of career as indicator of expertise and knowledge. Instead, look at what percentage of the lawyer’s practice constitutes bankruptcy. Check into their reputation via the local bar association. Ask your friends, family, and colleagues. While there are several bankruptcy lawyers who have been practicing for years in the commercial sector, there are many younger “up-and-coming” lawyers who provide quality representation in the consumer arena.
Red Flag Alert: Many bankruptcy lawyers will have a couple of complementary practice areas, such as collection defense. However, if you see 10 practice areas listed, be alert. This could indicate that the lawyer is what is often referred to as a “jack of all trades, master of none.”
4. Is the lawyer willing to educate you and keep you informed?
When meeting with a lawyer, pay attention to how they conduct the meeting. Do they use plain English when explaining legal topics? Do they seem patient and ask questions? Do they ask if you have any questions? Leaving the meeting feeling unheard, dazed, and/or confused is a huge warning sign.
One of the biggest complaints that attorneys receive is that they don’t return phone calls or keep their clients informed. Ask how soon you can expect to receive a reply to an email or phone call. If the lawyer can’t articulate a policy or give you a time-frame, be concerned. Also ask how the lawyer will keep you informed as to case developments. Do they send you a copy of every filing? Do they have a client portal where you can check on your case and download documents? The last thing that you need or want is to feel like you have to prod your lawyer for constant updates.
5. A comfortable relationship.
Picking a lawyer that you’re not comfortable with, regardless of price, could be a recipe for disaster. Bankruptcy is an emotional process. A good relationship with your lawyer can help ease the fear, worry, and stress, while a poor relationship could leave you feeling uninformed, lost, or worse.
If you don’t feel good about your relationship, walk away. And don’t be shy about it. It is important that you feel confident and right about what your lawyer is doing and that they are advocating for you.
At the end of the day, always trust your instincts, do your research, and you’ll find a solid advocate. If you would like to discuss your bankruptcy case and see if I am the right fit for you, please feel free to contact me at 317-695-1008 or [email protected]
About Matthew Cree
Matthew Cree is an attorney and counselor at law focusing on bankruptcy and collection defense in Greenwood, Indiana. His philosophy is to be there with his client every step of the way and to make bankruptcy as stress-free as possible.