Your bankruptcy attorney will serve as your advocate and guide through what is a sometimes confusing process. Taking the time to contact a few lawyers and knowing what to look for can set you on the path toward successfully filing for bankruptcy.
When hiring an attorney to help you file your Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, look for expertise, a fair price and a communication style you’re comfortable with.
How to find bankruptcy attorneys to contact
Several online directories promise to help with finding a bankruptcy lawyer in your area. Be aware, however, that many of these directories simply list attorneys in exchange for a fee and don’t offer a guarantee of quality. Bring a discerning eye to any listing you consult.
Start with these two resources:
The ABA site lists lawyers and firms that meets its standards for lawyer referral, and you can sift through the results for attorneys that specialize in bankruptcy. You can also check your state’s bar association for local resources.
The NACBA directory lists bankruptcy attorneys exclusively. The organization is dedicated to helping consumers going through bankruptcy and attorneys who specialize in this area. However, NACBA’s membership criteria are fairly generous, so membership does not necessarily equal quality or experience.
In addition to these directories, ask friends and colleagues for recommendations if you feel comfortable doing so.
Contact a few attorneys who seem qualified and arrange a consultation with each one. Some attorneys offer free meetings, and others will charge a fee of around $35 for this initial conference. Don’t assume no charge means lesser qualifications; starting with free meetings can help you get comfortable interviewing lawyers and may lead you to the one you choose.
At all of the meetings, aim to find out three things:
- Does the attorney have the expertise to help you?
- Are the fees are appropriate?
- Would you feel comfortable working with this person?
Experience and expertise
Successfully navigating the bankruptcy code requires a deep knowledge of this area of law and the experience to know how to use it. A misfiled form or missed deadline could result in your case being thrown out. That’s why finding a specialist is important.
“Going with an attorney who is not specialized in bankruptcy can be very dangerous because they might not understand how to interpret this complicated area of the law,” says Dan LaBert, executive director of the NACBA. “You wouldn’t go to a dermatologist if you had a heart problem.”
Ask the lawyers you contact what specialized training or background they have. Those who have bankruptcy certification from the American Board of Certification have proven they know their way around the bankruptcy code better than your average attorney. An affiliation with NACBA is also a sign that an attorney is committed to advocating for people going through bankruptcy.
Ask the attorneys you meet with how many Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies they’ve handled. And know that a good bankruptcy lawyer will also discuss alternatives to bankruptcy, such as credit counseling, with clients.
Compensation that fits your case
There is no “right” amount a bankruptcy attorney should charge, although generally a Chapter 13 filing will cost more than a Chapter 7. Fees vary from case to case and from one state to another.
You can expect to pay between $500 and $3,500 for a Chapter 7 and between $1,500 and $6,000 for a Chapter 13, LaBert says. The more complicated the case, the more expensive it’s likely to be. Ask about the attorney’s fee structure during your first conversation and make sure you understand what services are included.
California bankruptcy attorney Cathy Moran says the most important thing is making sure you’re getting your money’s worth for your specific situation. “You need to know what’s at stake for you when you pick a bankruptcy lawyer,” Moran says. “If you have very few assets and there’s not much to lose, then you can choose a Smart Car or Ford Escort. But if you’ve got a home with equity or a fight with somebody nasty, you need an Audi or a Lexus — you need some horsepower.”
Communication and compatibility
Before you hire any attorney, ask yourself if you feel comfortable being open with him or her.
“I think that the quality of the communication is important because if you don’t, as the client, feel comfortable … disclosing what you’re worried about, if you keep secrets, it will be a deal killer for your case,” Moran says. Without having all of your information, Moran says, she would “have no way of knowing if my and your assessment of the situation is right.”
You and your bankruptcy attorney have a serious job ahead: working to make sure you can get the best deal for your situation. That’s going to involve hard conversations, and a dedication to open communication will help.
“It really does come down to having a compatible personality with the attorney,” LaBert says. “Your attorney is not going to be your buddy or your pal. They’re going to give you hard advice, and it will often relate to your spending habits. But ultimately the attorney has to make a welcoming environment for the client.”
Be wary of “bankruptcy mills,” or law firms that handle so many bankruptcy cases that they can’t give yours the time and attention it deserves. If in your first meeting you aren’t able to work one on one with the attorney to air your concerns and talk through your case, you might want to go elsewhere.
Not a DIY project
Keep these qualities in mind throughout your search and take your time.
Although it takes work to find the right lawyer, don’t be tempted to go without one. “I always say ‘pro se, no way’ for bankruptcy,” LaBert says, referring to the legal term for representing yourself.
Both he and Moran agree that if bankruptcy law is too complicated for a dabbling attorney, it’s too complicated for average people to tackle on their own — or at least too complicated to do so successfully.
Finding the right attorney for your situation will allow you to execute this debt relief option successfully, freeing you to focus on rebuilding your credit and living debt free.
Sean Pyles is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.