by: Kathleen Michon, J.D.
A big part of finding the right lawyer to represent you is knowing what to look for. Get some basic information before you make an appointment. Then schedule an initial consultation so you can find out more about the lawyer before you decide who to hire.
Whether you are browsing Internet directories, calling lawyers referred to you by friends, or getting names from a bar association referral service, here are some things to look for in a lawyer:
Look for an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Years of practice is not always the best indication of this. Ask how many bankruptcy cases the attorney has handled and what types. If a lawyer has handled tons of Chapter 7 cases, but not many Chapter 13s, she might not be for you. On the other hand, if the lawyer only handles Chapter 13 bankruptcies, that might be a red flag. You don’t want to be represented by someone who pushes clients in the direction of Chapter 13 when a Chapter 7 might be better. (Lawyers often make a greater profit from Chapter 13 bankruptcies.)
This is a tricky one to figure out. A lawyer may have practiced bankruptcy law for 20 years, but done a bad job of it. On the flip side, if a lawyer who recently graduated from law school is smart, hard-working, and mentored by an experienced bankruptcy attorney, he or she might be a good choice. Ask for referrals from former clients, and, if possible, speak directly to those clients.
Before you make an appointment, find out what the lawyer typically charges for a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case. Cheaper isn’t always better – you don’t want someone cutting corners nor do you necessarily want your case handled by a “bankruptcy mill” that cranks out bankruptcy paperwork without giving clients individual attention. On the other hand, high fees don’t always correlate to the best representation. Shop around to find out what most bankruptcy lawyers charge in your area. (See, Bankruptcy Attorneys' Costs and Fee Structures to learn more.)
Many lawyers will provide an initial consultation for free. But even if a lawyer charges for a consultation, it might be worth the money to pay for a few consults to find the right lawyer. Here are some things to assess in the first meeting:
When making an appointment, ask to talk directly to the lawyer. If you can’t, this may be a hint as to how accessible he or she is. Of course, if you’re told that a paralegal will be handling the routine aspects of your case under the supervision of a lawyer, you may be satisfied with that arrangement. Ask how long it will take for your phone calls to get returned or how hard it is to schedule appointments.
Ask specific questions. Do you get clear, concise answers?
If you’ve read this book, you’re already better informed than most clients (and many lawyers). How does the lawyer respond to this? Some lawyers are threatened by clients who have done their homework. Others welcome clients that are well-informed and willing to participate fully in their case.
If the answer is no, consider finding a lawyer who does. But keep in mind that malpractice insurance is far more protective of the lawyer than the client, and the fact that a lawyer is insured may make it more rather than less difficult to recover damages from the lawyer if he or she is professionally negligent. [Kathleen: This is my take. Yours may differ.]
One of your goals at the initial conference is to find out what the lawyer recommends in your particular case. Go home and think about the lawyer’s suggestions. If they don’t make sense or you have other reservations, call someone else.
No matter how experienced or competent the lawyer is, if you don’t feel comfortable with him or her during the first meeting, you may want to keep looking.
Excerpted from the 11th edition of Chapter 13 Bankruptcy: Keep Your Property & Repay Debts Over Time, by Stephen Elias and Kathleen Michon (Nolo).