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A Road Map to Find the "Right" Bankruptcy Attorney

Richard Paris

324 Knight Dr
San Rafael, CA 94901
(415) 456-0678

Licensed to Practice in California
Golden Gate University School of Law (1991)

A consumer bankruptcy practice can be a "volume" business with an attorney handling so many cases that your case may be just a number in a stack of files. You want an attorney who won’t deal with you like another number, but one who will use his or her experience and skills to achieve the end-goal – a discharge of your debts -- even if that attention may cost you more in attorney fees. To find the "right" attorney, follow the "road map" below and ask:

1. Is the attorney licensed?

For starters, hire a licensed attorney. Check your state bar association records to ensure that the attorney has an active license to practice law, and review any records of attorney complaints and disciplinary proceedings.

2. Does the attorney want to meet you for an initial consultation?

A good bankruptcy attorney will want to meet you, either in person or via telephone, for an initial consultation. Generally, the initial consultation will be free unless your bankruptcy matter is considerably complex.

3. Is the attorney experienced?

Use the initial consultation as your opportunity to ask:

  • How long have you been practicing bankruptcy law?
  • How many consumer bankruptcy proceedings have you handled in the past 12-months?
  • Of the cases that you’ve handled, what percent have resulted in successful discharge of your client’s debts?
  • How can you protect my assets?
  • Will you personally represent me at bankruptcy court hearings?
  • Who will prepare my petition?
  • May I speak to that person?
  • How many bankruptcy petitions has that person prepared?
  • What do you expect of me if I retain you to represent me?

It’s normal for a paralegal to prepare the petition, however, the paralegal’s work, by law, must be reviewed by a supervising attorney, and that attorney is ultimately responsible for the petition filed with the bankruptcy court.

4. What questions does the attorney ask you?

The questions that the attorney asks you, and the answers that he or she provides, will help to reveal how well that attorney understands and may handle the details of your case. The attorney should ask:

  • What were the factors that made you decide to file for bankruptcy?
  • Are you currently married or partnered?
  • Do you pay child and/or spousal support?
  • Do you own real property? Is your property in foreclosure?
  • Are you currently employed?
  • If not, are you unemployed? How long have you been unemployed?
  • If not, are you self-employed?
  • What income did you report to the IRS during the past two years?
  • Are you behind in paying your taxes?
  • Do you have any law suits pending?
  • Do you expect to receive an inheritance?
  • Do you have student loans?

If you retain that attorney, expect the attorney to request bank and credit card statements, pay stubs, titles to property, mortgage information, and details about personal loans. You will need to reveal every detail of your financial life. In turn, the attorney will inform you about debts that you can’t usually discharge, such as student loans. And, if you are not a good candidate for consumer bankruptcy, expect a good attorney to tell you that and to discuss other options that you should consider.

5. What is the attorney’s reputation?

While AVVO ratings may provide some insight about an attorney, as part of your due diligence you can:

  • Check the federal court web site, PACER, to view public records to determine the number of consumer bankruptcy cases the attorney has actually filed, and, of that, how many cases have resulted in discharge of debt,
  • Visit the bankruptcy court division in which your petition would be filed to see the attorney "in motion,"
  • Visit the attorney’s web site, read the attorney’s blog, and conduct a general internet search on the attorney.

6. What does the attorney’s fee agreement include?

The attorney’s written fee agreement should detail what his or her representation includes as well as what it excludes, such as adversarial proceedings.

7. How does the attorney ask for payment of his or her retainer?

An attorney will usually ask for a retainer fee to be paid separate from court costs and filing fees, and will only accept these payments in cash or by check before filing for bankruptcy.

In California, a large bankruptcy law firm was recently taken to task by the bankruptcy court for taking an up-front attorney fee in a Chapter 7 proceeding, and then deducting a portion of their fees, each month, from their client’s bank account after the bankruptcy petition was filed. They were further admonished for dealing with their client by e-mail only, and for their failure to personally represent their client at the §341 creditor’s meeting. In accordance with bankruptcy procedures, a good attorney will not accept a post-dated check to pay attorney fees, credit card payments, or post-petition payments in a Chapter 7 case, and if he or she does, run the other way!

If the attorney that you are considering to represent you meets all these "sniff tests," and if the chemistry between you is good, then that attorney may be the “right” attorney for you.

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