Beyond experience, what should you look for in a bankruptcy lawyer?

When I first started practicing bankruptcy law, my clients didn’t seem to know what to expect of me.

They told me stories of meeting with other bankruptcy attorneys in their quest to get some help, and what they’d experienced.

First there was the story of the attorney who had put his desk on a thick concrete slab so he could look down on his clients.

Then there was the one another the lawyer who stared at his computer screen the entire time, never looking at the person sitting in front of him.

And the attorney who spent half the time on the phone with other clients.

That’s just not acceptable, and I can’t believe that these three people are still practicing bankruptcy law (they are – I see them in court on a regular basis).

Here’s what you should expect from your bankruptcy lawyer:

  1. Full attention. Whether you’re on the phone with your attorney or sitting in their office, you should get 100% of that person’s attention. Period. No other phone calls, no email checking, no diversions whatsoever.
  2. Patience. Chances are pretty good that you’ve never been through this before, so it’s natural to have questions. Sometimes, a lot of questions. Often, the same questions arise repeatedly. If your lawyer rushes you out the door, it’s a good idea to look elsewhere.
  3. Plain English. This is your financial life on the line, not mine. Therefore, you get to make the decisions – all of them. I can make recommendations, but I’m not going to put myself in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing a course of action. In order for you to be able to make an educated and rational decision about your case, you’ve got to fully understand what’s going on. Unless you’re a lawyer, that means your attorney should always talk using language you can understand rather than legalese.
  4. Reliability. If I tell you that I’m going to have your bankruptcy court papers ready for your signature on Tuesday, you can rest assured that they will be ready on Tuesday. Not Wednesday, and not Friday. And if I say I’ll meet you in court at 9:00am, I’ll be there at 9:00am (probably even a few minutes early). Though things come up that may make me change the timeframe, those are the exceptions rather than the rule.
  5. Responsiveness. If you call or email your attorney, you should get a response. You may not get your lawyer on the phone when you call (you’ll seldom get me to pick up the phone when it rings because I’m working on another client’s matter, and that requires my full attention just the same way that you do) but you should get an answer in a reliable amount of time. I handle this by scheduling return phone calls, but other lawyers may deal with it differently.
  6. Experience. Does your bankruptcy lawyer reply to every query with, “it depends”? Do they sit with a bankruptcy manual open in front of them all the time, flipping through pages whenever you talk? Though no bankruptcy lawyer can have a ready answer to every problem, the one you choose should be conversant in how bankruptcy operates and the impact it will have on your financial world. Even a relatively new practitioner should have a mentor or supportive network of other attorneys ready to help out with thorny issues.

Hiring a bankruptcy attorney is no simple task. There are dozens in most areas, and at first blush it’s hard to distinguish among them. But take the time to talk with a few to make sure you’re getting the best fit for your needs.