How do you pick a bankruptcy lawyer when you’ve never hired any lawyer and never before considered filing bankruptcy?
What do you ask a bankruptcy lawyer to determine if the lawyer is the right one for you? After all, the conversation has to move beyond “what does bankruptcy cost?”
Financial troubles are tough and bankruptcy can seem scary.
So, you want to find a lawyer who can make it easier. You need to know if bankruptcy is really the right thing for you.
But what do you ask a prospective lawyer to make your decision?
Interviewing a bankruptcy lawyer
Actually, it probably doesn’t matter what you ask.
It matters how the lawyer answers.
Here’s a starter set of questions to get the conversation going
1. Do I have a meaningful alternative to bankruptcy?
Asking about alternatives to bankruptcy allows the lawyer to talk about the scope of your financial difficulties.
It allows you to gauge whether the lawyer can only see you as a buyer for what he sells. Or, has the lawyer considered both issues and timing to see if you need bankruptcy.
In fact, most people who sit down with a bankruptcy lawyer really need bankruptcy. They have ignored the signs that the situation is beyond repair for a long time.
So, the answer that bankruptcy is appropriate isn’t a black mark on the lawyer. Inability to explain why the alternatives don’t work well is a negative.
2. What’s the most serious complication for me?
Few cases are problem-free. Whether it’s protecting assets, passing the means test, or finding the money to fund a Chapter 13, almost every set of facts has bankruptcy challenges.
You want to know if the lawyer is forthcoming about the expected rough spots. Can he talk candidly about what might be challenging in your case?
3. How many cases like mine have you handled?
While the answer may be short, you do want to talk about the lawyer’s bankruptcy experience. Generally, the larger portion of a lawyer’s work load that is bankruptcy, the better.
Bankruptcy is a recognized legal specialty and if your case has a complexity, experience is an asset on your bankruptcy team.
4. Who will work on my case?
A bankruptcy legal team usually includes both a lawyer and staff. Much of the work in preparing the all important schedules is routine.
What you want to avoid, however, is a business model where all the work and the analysis is done by those without a law degree. Bankruptcy is not just “filling out forms”. Each answer in the form has a legal consequence that’s important to your case.
Ask, too, how you and the lawyer will communicate when you have questions during the process.
5. What is not included in your fee?
Those drowning in bills often think price is important in picking a lawyer.
From experience, about the only time I think it’s important is when the price is unreasonably low. Either you aren’t getting much service at that price, or the lawyer can’t compete on quality and therefore cuts the fee.
Ask if lien avoidance or reaffirmation issues are extra. Ask if there are costs beyond the court’s filing fee that you must pay. Ask about representation should there be a trustee audit, a 2004 examination, or an adversary proceeding.
It’s attitude that matters
As I said at the top, these questions are as much about the lawyer’s approach to you and your case as they are about the answers.
- Is the lawyer comfortable with you driving the agenda?
- Can he/she explain admittedly complicated matters clearly in a way you understand?
- Are your questions welcomed?
If communication between you and your lawyer isn’t open and valued, there’s trouble ahead. You need to be comfortable enough with the relationship to disclose the troubling or the embarrassing. Otherwise, you and your lawyer are playing without a full deck.
It needs to be OK to say “I don’t understand” or “I’m worried”. Otherwise, you may be setting off into the bankruptcy jungle without a current map or an adequate guide.
Don’t be afraid to leave an initial meeting with a lawyer without making a commitment. If you are uncertain about the fit, think it over.
Or interview another lawyer. Several data points will make things clearer.