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How to Choose a Bankruptcy Lawyer for your needs

Choose a Bankruptcy Lawyer
So, you’re in deep financial trouble. Behind on mortgage, car and student loan payments. Already maxed out six credit cards and headed that way on the seventh. Finally, I got another job, but the salary is 20% less than what you were making when you already were in trouble.
There is a layer of anxiety wrapped around you every day that feels like a belt. All you want to do is scream: “H-E-L-P!”
Fortunately, there is good news. You have a shot at a new life by filing for bankruptcy and you might not even have to lose your home or car.
All that’s required is successfully choosing a bankruptcy lawyer capable of getting you out of this miserable situation.
Just knowing you’re in too deep to manage things yourself is an impressive first step. Bankruptcy courts groan under the weight of desperate debtors who tried to represent themselves. Bankruptcy law is complicated and exacting. Many self-represented filers wind up worse off than they were before, losing their possessions without discharging any of their debts.
Bankruptcy judges have a term for such situations, says Tampa-based Bankruptcy Judge Catherine Peek McEwen. “We call it ‘a mess.’ ”
Nobody wants that.
Lawyer with sign that asks if you need a lawyer

Starting Point for Choosing a Bankruptcy Lawyer

Choosing a bankruptcy lawyer is essentially a two-step process: Begin by finding and vetting likely candidates. Complete the mission by interviewing the handful that meets your criteria, then retains the one that feels the most compatible.
The internet abounds with websites that help with finding and vetting, but old-fashioned methods are useful. Ask neighbors. Ask friends and relatives. (Yes, you have to swallow your pride.) Perhaps there are lawyers on your homeowner’s association board. There surely are lawyers on the board of your church. Ask all of them for recommendations.
The next step should be to visit websites like the American Bar Association (findlegalhelp.org), Legal Services Corporation (LSC.gov), and the federal court system (uscourts.gov). Avvo (avvo.com) and Martindale-Hubbell (martindale.com) are reliable rating services.
The state and local bar associations are also good resources; simply enter your state or city and the terms, “bar association” and “bankruptcy attorney” into your favorite search engine.

It Helps to Hire a Bankruptcy Specialist

Now, start the vetting process. Many sites — not just Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell — include starred peer ratings, and, like Amazon, allow searches based on numbers of stars. At Martindale-Hubbell, pay particular attention to lawyers whose pictures bear small red hexagonal signs with “AV” in the center. That is their most distinguished rating.
A caveat: Be wary of four-star lawyers who have only a handful of reviews; they might all have come from teammates on his (or her) softball team.
In all likelihood, you’ll want to hire a lawyer who specializes in bankruptcy. Though the last major revision to bankruptcy law was passed in 2005, interpretations of the law are constant.
“You might read a phrase in the statute and think it’s cut-and-dried,” Judge Peek McEwen says, but it’s not necessarily so. Only specialists can be counted on to know the latest rulings from circuit courts all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and how those rulings apply to clients.
It’s a very good sign if the specialist attorney belongs to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (nacba.org), which keeps them on the cutting-edge of relevant rulings.
Investigate whether your candidate attorneys are certified, which, according to the American Board of Certification (abcworld.org), “means that the certified attorney has met rigorous, objective standards and has demonstrated knowledge in bankruptcy and/or creditors' rights law.”
What else? Have they published articles in professional journals? Are they in demand as speakers at bankruptcy conferences? Both indicate attorneys recognized as experts by their peers.
Finally, investigate the lawyers’ histories of ethics complaints. The state bar’s website usually is a good source for such information.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time for interviews. Schedule at least three for comparison purposes. Also, don’t be put off by a strong candidate who charges a small consultation fee. Usually, that fee can be rolled over against your bill if you and the attorney decide you’re a match.
Before you go, make sure you know what the lawyer needs you to bring to properly assess your circumstances.

What Should You Ask a Bankruptcy Lawyer?

When you interview a bankruptcy lawyer, you want to be confident about their competency and comfortable that they care about solving your problem. Here are some questions that should help you arrive at both.
  • Find out how many bankruptcies they’ve done, and what types?
  • How large is the lawyer’s practice, or affiliate firm? Single-proprietor and boutique firms might provide a personal touch, but larger firms offer more resources. The one you choose may depend on how complex your case is.
  • How quickly do they return calls? What is their policy about charging for calls?
  • How hands-on will the attorney be? Will (s)he file all your paperwork? Will (s)he accompany you to court?
Remember, you’re looking for someone who is devoted to helping people get back on their feet. When the interview is complete, jot your thoughts in a journal, or tap them into your smartphone.

Ask these questions yourself:

  • Did the lawyer listen?
  • Did the lawyer strike you as trustworthy?

The Three “E’s” of Choosing a Bankruptcy Lawyer

Reed Allmand, a certified bankruptcy attorney based in Dallas, stresses that the selection of an attorney is guided by the “three Es”: Empathy, Experience, and Expense.
Let’s take them in reverse order. After all, who cares about empathy and experience if you can’t afford the expense?
You don’t have to be insolvent to ask: “How much is this going to cost?”
“You should be able to find a bankruptcy attorney who can work with your finances … for reasonable attorney fees,” Allmand said.
Most offer plans that allow legal services to begin without a large upfront payment. By all means, comparison shop. “Reasonable attorney fees” can be a relative term. You don’t want to make a bad financial situation worse by getting burned.
Allmand recommends against choosing “dabblers” who often are more interested in quick, out-the-door closings than the nuances of a client’s predicament.
Also to be avoided: “bankruptcy mills,” the high-volume law firms that churn customers like used-car salesmen.

Some of the signs you are being put through a mill include:

  • They advertise heavily
  • They file large numbers of bankruptcy cases each month
  • They offer scant contact between clients and attorneys while relying heavily on non-lawyer support staff for the filing process
  • They fail to file documents in a timely fashion
  • They arrive at hearings unprepared
Don’t get “milled” while searching for a bankruptcy attorney. Volume doesn’t matter. Empathy, experience, and expense, do.

Don’t Let Final Decision Scare You

Allmand, like any reputable bankruptcy professional, knows you’re feeling guilt and shame. The last thing you need is an advocate who ladles on judgment or condescension. It helps if the attorney has empathy for the client’s situation.
Maybe they’re enduring a divorce, he says. Or their kid is sick or the car broke down or they lost their job. The go-to bankruptcy attorney knows overwhelming financial strife often creates more problems and increases misfortune.
Allmand remembered a client who had spent the day attempting to ward off a next-day eviction … and had seriously considered suicide as the best option.
Ultimately, however, she made her way to his office — late and disheveled, perhaps, but alive and determined. There, with empathy from Allmand, they began the process of getting her to a better day.
This says Judge Peek McEwen, is the essence of bankruptcy laws: They are designed to get people to a fresh start. In her experience — she’s been on the bench in downtown Tampa for 12 years — good bankruptcy attorneys want to navigate a successful journey.
“We hope the experience isn’t scary,” she says. “It isn’t meant to be scary. We’re all doing things to help people get through it.”

Online Referral Services

Over the last 20 years, online legal referral services have mushroomed. Many of these websites also offer articles on different legal topics, including bankruptcy. Some of more popular services are
These sites will provide a randomized list of attorneys who practice in your area. There is no cost to you for the referral list. Attorneys pay to have their names listed on the sites.

Local Bar Associations

Your local bar association will also have a referral service. If you call or inquire online, they will provide you free of charge with a list of members who practice the specialty you seek.

How Much Does It Cost to File Bankruptcy?

The subtext here is, “Should I choose an attorney by how much she charges?” Admittedly, this might be your primary concern. After all, you’ve probably been dealing with financial issues for some time and don’t have much left to spread around.
You’ll have three separate costs when you file a bankruptcy case.
  • Court Filing Fee: $335 for Chapter 7; $310 for Chapter 13
  • Credit Counseling Fee: The pre-filing credit counseling session and post-filing financial management course are provided by independent organizations who charge a fee, usually between $25 and $50. Your attorney can usually give you the names of services available in your area and online.
  • Attorney’s Fee: The fee your attorney will charge is hard to classify and varies across the country. In my area, North Texas, attorneys charge a flat fee that about $2,000 to $2,500 for a Chapter 7 straight bankruptcy case and $3,500 for a Chapter 13 repayment plan case. Some attorneys charge a bit more when both spouses file one case, when there are lots of creditors, or when there’s business debt involved.

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