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Filing Bankruptcy? Beware The Phantom Lawyer!

There’s a strange beast trolling the bankruptcy courts around the nation – the phantom lawyer.

More and more, people are filing bankruptcy without ever having met their lawyer. This, after paying their hard-earned money for an attorney rather than going it alone.

They’ve got an attorney who signs the petition and related documents, and the name of the firm on the office door sounds legal enough.

But step into the conference room and you’re looking into the face of a legal assistant. Perhaps an excellent one with years of training and experience, but not an actual attorney.

Sometime, the lawyer shows up later on.  Other time, the client never meets the attorney at all.

Personally, I think people going through the stress of bankruptcy deserve better.

The Push And Pull Of Client Service And Profitability

I understand the drive to use legal assistants to help people who are filing bankruptcy.

The lawyer likely charges a flat fee, and the time involved in getting a bankruptcy case together for filing can be significant.

That creates a need to maximize productivity without sacrificing the quality of the end result – getting you, the client, the bankruptcy discharge.

For some bankruptcy lawyers, that means using appearance attorneys to handle routine trustee meetings and hearings on motions that don’t involve a fight. These appearance attorneys, “ride the rails,” handling court hearings for a number of lawyers.

This, in turn, allows the bankruptcy lawyer the freedom to remain in the office to meet with other clients.

IF there’s a court conflict then we use appearance attorneys – it’s not perfect, but I make sure to let my clients know that I won’t be there personally. I give my clients a choice of getting their case heard quickly or waiting for me to be there on a different day.

If I do work with an appearance attorney, it’s one who understands the case as well as I do.

How Much Is Too Much?

The practice of law is a business, driven by profit as well as the need to serve clients. If there’s no profit then our ability to help more people is compromised.

Over the years I’ve met some legal assistants who know more about bankruptcy law than do more bankruptcy attorneys; they’re smart, savvy, and well-organized.

But a legal assistant is not a bankruptcy attorney. When someone hires me, they deserve my expertise and the benefit of my experience rather than that of someone who’s not allowed to give legal advice.

By law, the legal assistant must be guided by a attorney. That lawyer’s got to know what he or she is doing.

The attorney is the one who makes the judgment calls, not the non-lawyer. Such judgment calls include:

  • Should you file for bankruptcy at all and, if so, what type of bankruptcy is your best option?
  •  What exemptions are appropriate?
  •  Will you lose any of your property and, if so, how can you minimize the damage?
  •  How much should you propose to pay in Chapter 13?
  •  What documents will you need to provide in order to satisfy the trustee’s inquiries?
  •  How should you deal with secured debt such as mortgages and car loans?
  •  Can you modify the terms of a car loan or second mortgage in a Chapter 13 and, if so, what modification should be proposed?

Put Your Faith In The Letterhead

Having your non-lawyer staff members conduct the bankruptcy consultation is a bad idea.

That’s where I make those critical judgment calls and help clients figure out which direction to take in terms of filing bankruptcy.

I answer questions, clear up confusion, and put together a roadmap.

The signing of the bankruptcy petition, too, is a time to meet with a lawyer rather than a paralegal or other staffer.

You need to understand what you’re signing, and why you’re signing it. You should never sign your bankruptcy petition without your attorney sitting next to you (or across the table).

Anything less should be unacceptable to you.

So if you discover that you’ve hired a phantom bankruptcy lawyer, it’s time to look elsewhere. You deserve better.

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By |February 29th, 2012|

About the Author:

I've been a consumer protection lawyer since 1995, working to help people end their bill problems. I'm a faculty member at the Student Loan Law Workshop, a nationally recognized speaker, and a long-time member of both the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys and National Association of Consumer Advocates.
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