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What to Consider When Hiring a Bankruptcy Lawyer
People who are facing significant financial pressure often choose to file for bankruptcy so that they can get a fresh start. However, this process is very technical and far from intuitive to the average person. Several different sections of the US Bankruptcy Code offer varying forms of relief, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. In some situations, a debtor also may have less drastic alternatives of which they may be unaware. If you are considering bankruptcy, therefore, you should strongly consider hiring a lawyer who can help you decide not only whether bankruptcy is the right solution for you but also which form of bankruptcy would maximize your relief. This can ensure that your debts are discharged to the greatest possible extent without causing unnecessary damage to your finances and disruption to your life.
Deciding who is the right lawyer for you can be challenging. A basic Google search can be a good place to start, but this should be only a first step. Google searches will lead to a wide range of results, including many paid listings that do not necessarily reflect the skill of a lawyer or their aptitude for your case. Similarly, you might gain useful insights from talking to friends or family members who have hired a bankruptcy attorney, but the right fit for them may not be the right fit for you. Each situation is unique. Here are certain guidelines that can help you knowledgeably research and compare attorneys.
Background and Experience
You should hire a lawyer who has substantial experience assisting people in situations similar to yours. For example, if you own a small business, you may want to retain an attorney who has helped business owners file under Subchapter V of Chapter 11. This is a relatively new option that can allow small businesses to survive financial stress. For another example, if your main priority is keeping your home, you may want to retain an attorney who is familiar with foreclosure prevention strategies. Some attorneys may have relevant board certifications or memberships in professional organizations. They may have received awards or other formal recognition of their legal prowess.
In general, you should aim to hire an attorney without a history of serious disciplinary issues. Information about an attorney’s professional record can be found by searching for them on the state bar website for their jurisdiction. You may want to review the details of any disciplinary action to get a sense of the events leading to it. Some violations are less significant than others. You may not want to automatically remove an attorney from your consideration based on a very minor infraction if they are currently in good standing.
On the other hand, a record of serious violations should be a red flag, even if the attorney has achieved some good results. You do not want egregious mistakes by your attorney to prevent you from maximizing the relief available to you.
Reviews and Testimonials
Reviews by previous clients can give you a sense of what it would be like to work with an attorney. You may find insights into their personality, level of professionalism, and communication skills. Client reviews can be helpful even if the details of your case are different from a previous client’s case. However, beware of very brief reviews that are harshly negative or effusively positive without providing details. These reviews may not be trustworthy.
If an attorney has received favorable reviews from other attorneys, this may indicate that they have a strong reputation in the legal community. They may be more likely to be respected by judges, bankruptcy trustees, and representatives of creditors, which can help resolve any issues in your case more favorably and efficiently.
Often, a bankruptcy lawyer will discuss their most notable successes on their website or blog. Each matter is decided on its own facts, so you should not assume that you will receive the same outcome as a previous client. However, a history of positive results for people in roughly similar situations to yours can be a promising sign. You may also gain insight into the cases in which an attorney performs most impressively if many of their strongest results involve the same type of issue.
Many bankruptcy lawyers offer a free consultation to prospective clients. You can set up a consultation by phone or online after providing some initial details about your case. The consultation helps the client and the attorney decide whether they are the right fit for each other. Even if you are impressed by an attorney’s credentials and achievements, you should not choose them on that basis alone. Instead, you should make sure to work with a lawyer whom you can trust and who relates well to you. You should feel that your lawyer is personally invested in your case, rather than treating you as just another case number. Ideally, you should set up consultations with several attorneys before deciding whom to hire.
Bringing a list of questions to the consultation can help you decide whether an attorney is the right fit. For example, you may want to ask about the trajectory that your case is likely to take, such as the length of the process and the range of debts that can be discharged. You should not expect a precise answer, but a general impression can help set your expectations. An optimistic answer may be encouraging, but you should think twice if an attorney makes guarantees or seems much more confident than their competitors. They may be overpromising. Also, you should listen to how the attorney explains their evaluation. They should be able to articulate their reasoning in a way that is coherent and accessible to a non-lawyer.
Fees are another important issue to address at the consultation. Many bankruptcy lawyers charge a flat fee, but some attorneys charge an hourly rate. In other cases, an attorney may charge a flat fee for the main bankruptcy case and an hourly rate for matters such as adversary proceedings, which are separate lawsuits within a bankruptcy case.
The method of paying attorney fees may vary based on the type of bankruptcy that you file. If a debtor files under Chapter 7, they should expect to pay any flat fee upfront. This is because Chapter 7 results in a discharge of unsecured debts, including attorney fees, so a debtor would have no obligation to pay fees that were due but unpaid when the bankruptcy case was filed. If a debtor files under Chapter 13, however, they may pay only part of the attorney fees at the beginning, while the remaining fees are covered by the Chapter 13 repayment plan. Bankruptcy courts impose guidelines for acceptable attorney fees in Chapter 13 cases, and an attorney rarely can charge a fee that exceeds the guideline amount. Considering all the potential complexities, you should make sure to understand your obligations before signing a representation agreement.
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