How do you know a good bankruptcy lawyer from a bad one?
This is a tougher question. It is hard to advise in this regard without overgeneralizing. There are some large firms that do a good job, and a lot of small firms and solos that are complete hacks. As a general rule, you can’t rely on advertising at all – the most visible bankruptcy lawyer in your community is just the one with the most advertising budget. In fact, a big advertiser is often a firm where you’ll be one client of hundreds dealing with lots of non-attorney staff.
For the most part, you’ll have to use your head and put some time and effort into it. After all, it’s your case!
Consult with at least two different lawyers.
Every decent bankruptcy lawyer offers a free consultation. Take advantage of this. Make appointments with two different lawyers. Go to each appointment and tell your story. Listen to how they address your concerns. It isn’t so much that one of the two lawyers you see is likely to be the best lawyer in town as much as the fact that seeing only one lawyer severely limits your understanding of the bankruptcy process. If you only see a crappy lawyer, then you won’t realize he was a crappy lawyer until it is far, far too late.
Ask about non-bankruptcy options.
A lawyer who doesn’t know anything but bankruptcy can’t advise you to do anything but bankruptcy. And the first and foremost thought in your mind if you’re thinking about bankruptcy should be this: Is it my best option? Filing bankruptcy is a big step, and though it’s only slightly more reversible than a hysterectomy.
You want to be damn sure that if you do file bankruptcy, it was the last, best option for your situation. So if you’re there because you are trying to save your home, ask the lawyer for advice about your loan modification or short sale efforts. If he can’t give you basic info on the HAMP Program or the new Dodd-Frank Dual Tracking regulations, then he doesn’t deserve your $3,000.
Make Sure She Knows All Chapters of the Bankruptcy Code
I’m not saying that your lawyer should have experience in Single Asset Real Estate Cases or Corporate Subsidiary Chapter Elevens, but if your lawyer only does Chapter 7 cases, you can’t hire them. Yes, Chapter 7 cases are a bit easier than Chapter 13s, but they’re also more dangerous if you screw them up. Chapter 7 cases cannot be un-done at the Debtor’s option.
And what if you do have a business that may need a Chapter 11? Your lawyer should be able to tell you about it, even if they’re not comfortable actually running a Chapter 11 (because they’re long and expensive and kind of a pain in the ass, IMO).
They Hear Your Story
You don’t need any legal experience or sophistication to get this principle. A lawyer is first and foremost an advisor. That’s why we get referred to as “Counsel.” And the number one characteristic of any good counselor is that they listen.
If a lawyer doesn’t take the time to hear your concerns and priorities before you hire them, they really won’t give a damn after they’ve already been paid.
A Jack-of-All-Trades is a master of Nothing
Yea, there may be some genuine geniuses out there who really can take on a divorce trial Monday, a criminal arraignment Tuesday, and handle your bankruptcy on Wednesday, but I haven’t met one yet. The fact is that the human brain can only contain a finite number of expertises.
I don’t do divorce cases. I don’t do civil rights cases, or criminal cases, or probate work, or Social Security, or personal injury, or worker’s comp, or employment law or insurance law.
I represent people who are in financial trouble. I represent them in many matters – from auto financing fraud to mortgage overcharges to bankruptcy to credit repair – but I don’t stray outside of my comfort zone. These things all share a lot of common legal principles and practical considerations. A personal injury case is utterly different. It’s a tort. I’ve never done a tort case in my life (except fraud, which is technically a tort, even though it is often a part of my statutory cases).
If I put my mind to it and worked really hard at it, could I do a decent job of trying a criminal case? Probably, but no amount of study and preparation would make me as good as a devoted criminal defense attorney. That’s just how life works. If your “bankruptcy lawyer” does personal injury, divorce, and estate planning, she’s not a bankruptcy lawyer. Maybe you’re OK with that. Again, none of these rules are hard and fast, and every lawyer is unique in his own way, but all things being equal, you want an expert in your corner.
And you deserve one.
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