Ten Things To Look For When Selecting A Bankruptcy Attorney

Henry E. “Hank” Hildebrand, III is the Chapter 13 Trustee for the Middle District of Tennessee, and a member of the Board of Directors for the NACTT Academy. He can reached at Hank.Hildebrand@ConsiderChapter13.org.

Filing bankruptcy is difficult, expensive and traumatic. It involves your entire family, directly or indirectly, and it can have a lasting impact on you and your future. The process is complicated and filled with traps for the unwary. It is important to have a good attorney by your side as you pilot through the treacherous shoals that is bankruptcy today.

But how do you pick a good bankruptcy attorney? The selection of a bankruptcy attorney is a critical decision – one of the most important decisions a family can make – and it is usually made during a time of crisis and stress. To assist, here are ten things to remember when selecting a lawyer.

1. Don’t Procrastinate.

When financial problems hit, many people put off making a decision, hoping that something will happen to help avoid a bankruptcy filing. Remember, getting advice from a bankruptcy lawyer does not mean that filing bankruptcy is inevitable. Many good lawyers can give you advice on how to avoid filing.

But waiting too long to see a lawyer can be a mistake. As time passes, options are limited, interest on debt increases, and events occur that can make it difficult for the best of attorneys to work things out to your advantage. Remember, delay can be damaging.

2. Don’t Rely on the Yellow Pages.

Any lawyer willing to pay the advertising rates can get a page in the yellow pages. The size of an ad is no indication of the ability of the attorney.

3. Don’t Rely on the Advice of Friends.

Your situation is unique, and bankruptcy is a highly specialized, complex area of the law. Just because your brother-in-law had a great result with a particular lawyer handling his auto accident does not mean that the same attorney has either the experience or the ability to take on a bankruptcy case.

4. Look for Signs of Specialization.

Bankruptcy is a complicated area of the law and Congress has recently rewritten it to make it even more complex. Many people have problems related to mortgages, taxes, and car notes – problems requiring some sophistication. Many states recognize consumer bankruptcy as a specialized area of the law and will certify attorneys as specialists in that field. To find a list of certified specialists in your area, go to www.abcworld.org.

5. Check out the Cost.

Many aspects of a bankruptcy case can be handled by paralegals and legal assistants. This can result in reduced costs to you, so do not expect that your case would be handled exclusively by an attorney. This generally permits an efficient law firm to quote a flat rate for your case. Make certain you know what this fee covers, and make certain your prospective attorney will see you through to the end of your case.

It is not unusual for an attorney to charge an additional fee if a creditor decides to challenge your discharge. Ask specifically how this would be handled in your case if such a situation arises.

If you and your attorney decide to file a Chapter 13 case, some or all of the attorney fees may be paid as part of your repayment plan. This may have the effect of having your creditors pay your attorney from funds you would otherwise pay to them. Make sure you know what the cost is. Remember, the cheapest is not always the best.

6. Find Out Who the Trustees Are.

Many people who serve as bankruptcy trustees also will represent individuals in cases. These trustees can have tremendous experience and, if they can, either represent you or give you good advice on which attorneys would provide the best service. You can find out who the trustees on the Chapter 7 panel are by going to the United States Trustee website.

7. Look for Professional Associations.

While it is true that attorneys can be part of many associations by just paying the dues, look for an attorney that is active in local bankruptcy bar functions or national associations such as the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (www.nacba.org) or the National Association of Chapter 13 Trustees (www.nactt.com). If an attorney attends the training and educational programs offered by such groups as NACBA or the NACTT, they demonstrate a willingness to keep up with current developments and trends in the law.

8. Look for Signs of Organization.

When you visit a bankruptcy attorney for the first time, usually for a consultation, check out the organization of the office. Does the atmosphere feel to be one of crisis, or does the office appear to run efficiently? When you are waiting, is the phone answered and is the person answering the phone pleasant? If an attorney’s office gives the appearance of profound pandemonium, it may be a sign that the office is too busy to handle your situation and give it the attention it deserves.

9. Look for a Pleasant Staff.

Most debtors’ attorneys rely in large part upon a professional, well-trained staff. Generally, you will be dealing most of the time with paralegals and assistants. Know that this is normal and is one way that attorneys keep costs in line. So it is important that you not only feel comfortable with your attorney, but you also feel comfortable with the staff. Find out if the attorney will assign your case to a particular staff person and, if so, make sure you feel comfortable talking to that staff member. If you don’t feel comfortable with the staff of the attorney, then that attorney is probably not right for you.

10. Look for a Listener.

Everyone’s financial story is different and, in order to provide good advice, the best attorneys will listen before they can recommend any course of action. Whether you engage in a non-bankruptcy workout, a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13, remember that the case is your case, not your attorney’s. They should listen to your goals, your views, and facts about your situation. If you are meeting with an attorney who starts giving opinions before they listen to you, it is probably a good idea to keep looking.

Henry E. Hildebrand, III has served as Standing Trustee for Chapter 13 matters in the Middle District of Tennessee since 1982 and as Standing Chapter 12 Trustee for that district since 1986.  He also is of counsel to the Nashville law firm of Lassiter, Tidwell, Davis, Keller & Hogan, PLLC. Mr. Hildebrand graduated from Vanderbilt University and received his J.D. from the National Law Center of George Washington University.  He is a fellow of the American College of Bankruptcy and serves on its Education Committee.  He is Board Certified in consumer bankruptcy law by the American Board of Certification.  He is Chairman of the Legislative and Legal Affairs Committee for the National Association of Chapter 13 Trustees (NACTT). In addition, he is on the Board of Directors for the NACTT Academy for Consumer Bankruptcy Education, Inc. Mr. Hildebrand has served as case notes author for The Quarterly, a newsletter dealing with consumer bankruptcy issues and Chapter 13 practice in particular, since 1991.  He is a regular contributor to the American Bankruptcy Institute Journal.  He is an adjunct faculty member for the Nashville School of Law and St. Johns University School of Law.



(Originally published: 1/6/2009)

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