Bankruptcy is complicated. If you’re going through the process, you want an experienced professional on your side. You want a bankruptcy lawyer.
A bankruptcy attorney analyzes your financial situation and recommends a path forward. They can explain the differences between a Chapter 13 bankruptcy and Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Your attorney also lets you know what property you can keep once you file and what debts you can’t discharge, like student loans.
Since legal advice isn’t usually cheap or free, it’s common to hesitate to pay when you’re already deep in debt. But your odds of a successful bankruptcy case increase when you hire the right bankruptcy lawyer.
How to Choose a Bankruptcy Lawyer
When it comes to legal services, you want someone who knows what they’re doing and has a track record of results.
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Since the attorney-client relationship is key to the success of your bankruptcy case, pick someone you feel comfortable around. Price also matters. Attorney fees vary based on your specific case and location.
You might want to get your bankruptcy over and done with. But take your time researching lawyers to ensure you find the right person for your specific situation.
1. Look for Specialization in Bankruptcy Law
You wouldn’t go to a cardiologist for chronic foot pain. The same rule applies when looking for a good bankruptcy lawyer. You want to find someone who specializes in bankruptcy law.
The bankruptcy code varies based on the type of bankruptcy you file. Some types of debts are allowed under Chapter 13 but not Chapter 7. Income limits and debt limits also differ.
You need a lawyer who knows the difference. Someone who’s based their practice on bankruptcy is more knowledgeable about that specific subject than a generalist.
The more experience and expertise the attorney has in bankruptcy, the greater the odds of success and debt relief.
2. Ask for Recommendations
If you’re embarrassed to ask people you know for the name of a bankruptcy lawyer, ask more generally if people can recommend an attorney or law firm.
Some firms have multiple specialties. If an acquaintance or relative had a good experience with a particular law firm for another issue, you might have a good experience too.
But don’t stop your research there. Dig a little deeper to find out as much as possible about the attorney before you book a consultation.
3. Search Reputable Directories
Good old Google can help you find a bankruptcy lawyer in your area, but take any search results you get with a grain of salt, as those often come from the attorneys themselves.
The same is true of any commercial legal directories. Attorneys often pay a fee to have their details listed.
A better bet is to look at the membership pages of national and local bar associations and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.
The American Bar Association is a voluntary organization that represents the legal profession. Any attorneys who appear in its directory meet rigorous standards for referrals. State bar associations offer a similar service at the state level.
The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys is dedicated to supporting bankruptcy lawyers’ needs and protecting debtors’ rights. To join the association, an attorney needs to specialize in bankruptcy law.
While the bankruptcy association’s directory narrows your choices by specialty, its membership standards aren’t as exacting as the broader association’s. Cross-reference recommendations from the bankruptcy association with the national or state bar for best results.
4. Read Reviews
After consulting with friends and family and checking out the association directories, make a short list of around 10 attorneys. Then do some more digging.
Online reviews are valuable, but take those on the attorney’s website with a grain of salt. They probably aren’t fake reviews. But businesses don’t publish negative comments on their sites. Instead, look for reviews published on third-party sites, such as Trustpilot, Nolo, and FindLaw, and in search results.
Read the reviews closely. Don’t just look at the star rating. An attorney with a 1-star rating might have a single review from a really disgruntled client or have been review-bombed by those with personal grievances or even competitors. On the other end of the spectrum, an attorney with multiple 5-star reviews might have asked their friends or specific clients to boost their ratings.
Use the reviews you read to narrow your list to three to five attorneys, if possible. But don’t strike viable attorneys from the list just to get down that far.
5. Schedule a Free Consultation
Now, it’s time to meet attorneys face to face. Most offer a free consultation before you retain them.
Start with the lawyers who offer a free meet and greet. If none of them work out, move on to any that charge for an initial consultation.
When you meet with a lawyer, you get to learn more about their experience and gauge whether the relationship will work. You don’t want to work with an attorney who talks down to you or dismisses your concerns. You also don’t want someone who shows up late or constantly reschedules your consultation.
6. Gather Information About the Attorney
You want to find out several essential things during your consultation. Before you even ask about cost, find out if the attorney knows their stuff and whether you even want to work with them. Asking pointed questions lets you get the details you need.
- How Many Bankruptcy Cases Do You File Each Year? You want the Goldilocks of answers to this one, neither too many nor too few. Ideally, the attorney will work on several cases monthly, or around 50 annually.
- Do You Specialize in Bankruptcy? You want an attorney who does one thing and does it well. Some attorneys may have a closely related co-specialty, such as foreclosure, tax relief, or debt collection defense, especially in less densely populated areas with a smaller client pool.
- Will I Work With You? Most attorneys hire paralegals to assist with their legal work. They’re valuable members of any legal team. But some attorneys almost entirely offload clients to their paralegal team, meaning you never speak to them again after the consultation. When you have a concern or question, ensure you can get the lawyer on the phone if that’s who you want or need to talk to.
Write down everything the attorney says and how you feel at the end of the consultation. If something feels off about the meeting or you don’t like the way the lawyer treats you, keep looking.
7. Ask About the Fee Structure
For a process designed to help people deep in debt, bankruptcy is expensive. When you file bankruptcy, you need to pay a filing fee, a trustee surcharge, and miscellaneous fees (a real fee category for services provided by the bankruptcy court, such as filing amendments, getting copies, and administration).
Then there’s the cost of the attorney, which can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the bankruptcy type. Chapter 13 typically costs much more than Chapter 7 since it’s a more complex process.
Fortunately, many bankruptcy attorneys understand they’re working with individuals who don’t have the rosiest of financial situations at the moment. During your consultation, don’t be shy about asking about fees and whether payment plans are available.
It’s also worth asking if the attorney will take you on as a pro bono client. Many lawyers offer free services to clients with low incomes. Often, they only take on a certain number of pro bono clients or offer a specific number of hours pro bono.
Another option is to look for legal aid services in your area, which you can find on the site for the Congressionally established Legal Services Corporation. Legal aid attorneys provide counsel to people on low incomes. If your income qualifies, you might get legal representation completely free.
8. Watch for Red Flags
Sometimes, you also have to trust your gut when interviewing attorneys. Unfortunately, there are plenty of shady people out there who want to take advantage of people in tough situations.
A bankruptcy mill is a law firm that represents a high volume of bankruptcy clients without providing them with high-quality service. There are usually plenty of red flags that indicate that a firm is a bankruptcy mill and worth avoiding:
- It Advertises Aggressively. Be wary of any law firm that has ads all over the place. The best attorneys tend to build their clients through reputation.
- It Files Lots of Cases Monthly. Remember Goldilocks when looking for an attorney. You want a caseload that’s just right. If the firm is filing dozens or hundreds of cases monthly, you’re not going to get much attention.
- It Hands Off All Work to Paralegals. Paralegals do important work, but they’re not attorneys. When you hire a lawyer, you should get a lawyer. That doesn’t mean you’ll never speak to a paralegal. In fact, they do a lot of work on most cases. But you should be able to get your attorney on the phone if you need to talk to them.
- It’s One-Size-Fits-All. Bankruptcy isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Filers have different debts and needs. Run the opposite direction if an attorney doesn’t put much effort into learning the details of your specific situation.
If anything feels off or you feel uncomfortable during a meeting at a law firm, keep searching until you find a lawyer who gives you the attention you need.
You can go through the bankruptcy process without legal help. But hiring a lawyer makes you much more likely to win your case. A reputable and experienced attorney has seen it all and will quickly detect any issues in your case that can slow down the process or decrease your odds of success. Take your time finding an attorney to work with, as your financial future depends on it.
While you do have to pay for an attorney’s services, getting a fresh start and the option to rebuild your finances and credit can make the cost well worth it.