What are the 10 most important attributes to look for when hiring a zombie-killing bankruptcy/debt/mortgage defense attorney? Below, we discuss how to choose a bankruptcy attorney.
1. Provides personal service
There are entities out there that, in bankruptcy circles, are called “mills.” Typically, they are accused by other attorneys of filing lots of cases without much quality or care. For example, you might run into a law firm that does a lot of advertising on TV or through the internet, presses hard to sign you up, then shoots you through a well-oiled system providing little chance to speak with an attorney, requires that most of your contact is through assistants and other support staff, and doesn’t leave you with a feeling that any particular person is in charge of your case. The potential problem with these types of set-ups is that details can easily fall through the cracks or suffer the same fate as information passed in the children’s game of telephone. Remember that, in bankruptcy, mistakes can result in much higher costs to you than just having to pay the attorney fee and court costs.
Rather, choose an attorney who will provide the kind of personal contact that your situation demands.
2. Remains uncompromisingly loyal
The focus of any legal matter should be on what’s best for the client. Despite this ethical obligation, many lawyers are keenly aware that a bankruptcy case nets much less than, say, a personal injury matter or business litigation or a divorce. As a result, bankruptcy is often referred to as a “volume practice.” This means that, to make a good living, an attorney must churn a lot of cases. This is especially true if each case brings in less than $1,000.
Unfortunately, this pressure to bring in more clients can also affect a lawyer’s commitment to any one client. In order to fight this tendency, it is important to hire an bankruptcy attorney steadfastly dedicated to your case and your best outcome. It is true that most competent bankruptcy lawyers can get you through the process to a discharge. However, what you lose along the way can leave you kicking yourself later. Hire someone loyal.
3. Has expertise in all debt-related matters
This is kind of a no-brainer. You want someone who knows what they are doing and remains learned in the law and procedure affecting your case. But determining who fits the bill in this respect isn’t easy. After all, you’re hiring a lawyer because they know more about this stuff than you do! But here are a few questions to ask that may assist you in checking this box:
- Do you do debt-related matters exclusively?
- How long have you been practicing law in this area?
- Do you belong to any bankruptcy organizations?
- Did you attend the last bench-bar conference with your local bankruptcy court?
4. Approaches your situation fully and holistically
Some bankruptcy attorneys only do bankruptcies and don’t consider any other method of dealing with debts. And all their solutions are in bankruptcy. Neither do they consider other issues touching your situation that aren’t strictly bankruptcy matters. While you don’t want a mere jack of all trades and master of none, you need someone familiar with all possible debt resolutions and matters related to debt that can give rise to claims and causes of action that can put more money in your pocket.
You’ll also want someone who won’t leave you hanging after the bankruptcy discharge has been ordered. There are post-discharge issues, such as credit score remedies and credit reporting violations, an attorney should address as well. There may be hidden problems that can inhibit you from quickly bouncing back and achieving your post-discharge goals, like buying a new home or car.
5. Offers alternatives to bankruptcy first
In many foreclosure cases, a Chapter 13 petition should not be the first step toward resolving a mortgage arrearage. There are often opportunities to modify or refinance a mortgage that should be explored first. Only when all other alternatives have been exhausted should an attorney turn to bankruptcy.
6. Displays a passion for helping people
Attorneys who are in it for the money are practicing for the wrong reason. In order to represent you properly, the lawyer must have a passion for helping the average, hard-working person get back up on their feet and move into the future unencumbered by the special hardships they have endured and, perhaps, the understandable mistakes they have made. None of us is perfect. God knows. Which is why an attorney should not stand in judgment or make you feel bad about having to be there. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
A lawyer working your case should get that special joy from providing you a hand up.
An attorney who doesn’t hear the full story of your debt life cannot hope to collect all the necessary facts and aspects of your life and livelihood in order to file a case with confidence, knowing that he or she has done everything necessary to fully protect your assets. There is a lot written about how clients should listen to their attorneys. Point well taken. But lawyers also need to listen to their clients. Be sure you have one skilled in the art of listening.
The number one complaint about lawyers nationwide is that they fail to return phone calls and otherwise respond to the questions and concerns of their clients. Neglect is rampant. As if you don’t have enough to worry about dealing with insatiable creditors. Now, you have to worry about whether your lawyer is on top of things?
Be sure your lawyer has an in-house policy on the return of phone calls and emails. If the firm doesn’t, look elsewhere.
9. Doesn’t undercharge
It is very tempting when money is tight to try and price-comparison shop for a lawyer. This may be penny-wise but pound-foolish. The difference between the cost of bankruptcy attorneys is actually quite small, maybe a few hundred dollars. This is so small in comparison to the potential cost of screwing up your case!
Many lawyers filing their first few bankruptcy cases attempt to pick up clients by low-balling their fees. Some are woefully under-trained in this specialized area and should be working alongside more seasoned counsel.
Avoid the temptation to just go with the lowest attorney fee and concentrate on what really matters – competence and good judgment.
10. Doesn’t have a record of disciplinary action
It probably goes without saying that a record of disciplinary action against an attorney is not a good sign. An attorney can be disciplined for anything from neglecting your matter to failing to keep you informed to misappropriating funds you have deposited with the firm. You certainly don’t expect a lawyer to engage in discipline-worthy conduct. You can go to the Ohio Supreme Court’s website to check the disciplinary record for any prospective attorney.