You want your bankruptcy case to be a success.
Having a good bankruptcy lawyer on your team can go a long way to lowering the stress, increasing your understanding of the process and assuring a truly fresh start.
Finding the right lawyer
Bankruptcy law is a specialty, so you’ll want to find a lawyer who does most of their work in this field of law.
While a simple bankruptcy is simple, it may take a specialist to know if your case is simple.
Consider what your goal is going into a bankruptcy: a fresh start through a Chapter 7, which is generally simpler; or a reorganization of a business or your personal finances through a Chapter 11, 12, or 13? These are generally more complex, and bankruptcy lawyers tend to have sub-specialties in these areas.
Gather names of prospects
* Ask lawyers or tax preparers you know for recommendations
* Check out the Bankruptcy Law Network and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.
* Check local bar associations, state bar groups and specialization/ certification programs for bankruptcy lawyers in your community. California has a certification program for bankruptcy specialists.
* Identify the bankruptcy trustees in your area; Ask the trustee or his staff which attorneys appear most frequently. You can ask for some names of attorneys you might interview.
Most bankruptcy lawyers advertise, since they hope not to have repeat business, but must continually draw new clients.
Narrow the list
Gather information about the lawyer, including:
* The number of years in practice
* Specialization certificates in bankruptcy
* Membership in bankruptcy organizations. These affiliations suggest how focused the lawyer is on bankruptcy; the more complex your financial situation is, the more you will benefit from the skills of a lawyer who concentrates his practice in this field and has done many cases like yours
* Check the web for information by or about the lawyer
* Call the office of the lawyer and ask about the lawyer’s experience and how much of his/her practice is devoted to bankruptcy of the kind that you think you’ll be needing
Make an appointment
Many consumer bankruptcy lawyers offer free or reduced-cost initial appointments. Find out whether there will be a charge for the initial consultation.
Don’t assume that free is necessarily better. You can’t afford to have your case done badly, no matter how much money you appear to save.
Often, the free consultation is little more than an introduction and you have to come back if you want to engage that lawyer.
Note how you are treated on the phone. The staff should be a reflection of the attitude of the lawyer. Are your questions addressed courteously, with attention to your concerns? Are you prompted for the information you should bring to the first meeting?
If you’re still trying to decide which lawyer to interview, ask the staff what are the strengths and experience of their firm.
If you make an appointment and later decide not to keep it, have the courtesy to call and cancel the appointment.
Decisions about whether you should file bankruptcy, and what type of bankruptcy might be appropriate, turn on what you own and what you owe.
To get the most from an initial meeting, bring:
- Information on income and assets
- A month’s worth of pay stubs for you and your spouse
- A copy of the deed to your home, showing exactly how you hold title
- Information on the make, model, mileage and accessories on each vehicle
- A list of the value of stocks, deposit accounts, brokerage accounts
- Information on your gross income for the past two calendar years
- A recent bill from each creditor or a list of creditors and the amount you owe
- Tax notices for each year for which you have unpaid taxes
- Car loan information: interest rate, payoff, or a copy of your car lease
- Balances on each loan secured by your home or other assets
- Information regarding any lawsuits or judgments filed against you
- A total of any unpaid property tax
- If you operate a business, bring the business’s most recent tax return and the most recent income and expense information, plus any premises or equipment leases. Estimate the value of inventory, equipment and tools, and accounts receivable.
Examine your financial life for ongoing financial relationships and out-of-the-ordinary events:
- Have you co-signed loans?
- Do you have a lawsuit that hasn’t yet been filed or is pending?
- Do you appear on your parents’ or siblings property title?
- Have you put your property in trust?
- Are you entitled to an inheritance from someone who has recently died? Are you likely to inherit money in the next year?
- Are you getting a tax refund?
Events and relationships of these sorts influence the selection of a chapter and the timing of a bankruptcy filing. Gather up the details so a lawyer can assess your options.
Maximize your consultation
Your initial meeting with a bankruptcy lawyer should give the lawyer an opportunity to assess your financial situation, your goals, and the options that are open to you.
It should give you a chance to determine if you communicate well with the lawyer and if you have confidence that your matter is approached with care and competence.
* Write down your questions before the meeting, so that you don’t miss gathering information that is important to you.
* Ask how much of the lawyer’s practice involves bankruptcy and what portion of the bankruptcy cases involve clients like you.
* Note whether your questions are answered in a manner that you understand. Are you comfortable asking for further clarification? Bankruptcy is stressful enough without having to wonder if you understand what is happening.
* Ask whether there are difficult issues in your case, or matters that are hard to predict. Understand what the possible outcomes are and the cost involved.
* Review the pricing structure of the lawyer’s services. Most bankruptcies are done for a flat fee. Ask what costs there may be in addition to the flat fee. Get the fee arrangement in writing.
You’ll want to meet the lawyer’s staff. Most bankruptcy lawyers have paralegals or assistants who’ll interact with you and prepare the paperwork. You should have the same comfort level with the staff as you have with the lawyer.
But avoid a law office that wants you to deal exclusively with a paralegal.
Evaluate the match
You should leave a first meeting with a bankruptcy lawyer understanding your options, or what additional information is needed to lay out your options, and with an opinion as to how well you and the lawyer will work together.
Don’t be reluctant to leave that meeting without retaining the lawyer. If you have concerns about the match between you and lawyer, interview another lawyer.
Be willing to think your choices over before committing yourself.
Image courtesy of Nathan Penlington.