There are plenty of attorneys out there and it’s very difficult to choose the right bankruptcy attorney. Los Angeles and the surrounding areas in particular have a large attorney population. The good news is that you have a wide variety of choices and you can be selective when choosing a bankruptcy attorney. The bad news is that it can be very difficult for a non-attorney to choose the good attorneys from the ones that aren’t as good.
Here are some strategies to use when trying to choose a bankruptcy attorney:
1. Do basic research on the internet.
Start by making sure the attorney has no prior disciplinary actions by the California State Bar. You can search the California Bar’s website for every attorney licensed to practice law by going here. If the attorney’s records show previous disciplinary issues, it’s probably a bad idea to move forward with that person.
Once you’ve made sure the attorney doesn’t have any disciplinary issues, the next step is to see what previous clients have said about the attorney. For attorneys, Google and Avvo are usually the best sources to find reviews by past clients.
2. Do you meet with the attorney who will handle your case, or are you meeting with a paralegal or salesperson?
If you go to the initial consultation and you meet with someone other than an attorney, that’s not a good sign. If you are going to hire an attorney you should meet and speak with them first. There’s no way to know if you’re comfortable with an attorney if you don’t meet with them. Worse, if they’re too busy to take the time to meet with you as a potential client, they’re not likely to take much time to meet with you or respond to questions after you’ve hired them. Some firms will use a non-attorney as an initial “intake” person who you may meet with first, and then the attorney will come in and meet with you personally. This on its own should not be cause for alarm as long as you do get to meet with the attorney personally.
3. Ask the following questions of the attorney:
i. Do you have malpractice insurance?
Obviously, you want the answer to be test. No malpractice insurance is a bad sign.
ii. Have you ever been sued for malpractice?
Again, the obvious answer you want is no, they haven’t been sued for malpractice before. If the attorney says yes, ask for some details about what happened.
iii. How many bankruptcy cases have you handled?
You want the answer to this to be at least 50 cases, but preferably much more. To put it in perspective, most solo practitioners handle 5-15 cases per month, so you want someone who has handled 50 at minimum. Preferably you would want more than 500.
iv. How many bankruptcy cases have you filed since the law changed in October of 2005?
There were some major changes to the bankruptcy code in 2005 which altered much of how the current system works. You want to make sure the attorney is familiar with these changes and has been filing cases recently and staying abreast of current trends and bankruptcy case decisions.
v. What other areas of law do you handle? What portion of your practice is devoted to bankruptcy?
Just because an attorney handles some areas other than bankruptcy, it does not mean they are not a good bankruptcy attorney. That being said, be leery of the “jack of all trades.” If the attorney focuses on a few specific areas of law and one is bankruptcy, fine. Even better if all they do is bankruptcy. But if the attorney has a laundry list of “services” they offer, that’s not a great sign. As the famous quote says, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
vi. Will you personally be handling my case or will I be dealing primarily with a paralegal or another attorney?
You’re hiring the attorney, not the paralegal. Make sure the attorney you meet with is the one who will actually be handling your bankruptcy case.
vii. Will you personally appear with me at my 341 meeting?
Similar to the above, you want the attorney who prepares your case and is familiar with it to be present at the 341 meeting with you. A bankruptcy Trustee once told me that their biggest pet peeve at 341 meetings was “empty suites” who didn’t prepare the case and weren’t familiar with it, representing clients at the 341 meeting.
viii. What percentage of cases that you file are Chapter 7s? What percentage are Chapter 13s?
For most consumer bankruptcy attorneys this is somewhere around 80% Chapter 7s and 20% Chapter 13s. The actual percentage doesn’t matter really, as long as the attorney is clearly filing both types of cases. You don’t want to hire an attorney who only files Chapter 7 cases.
ix. Ask about fees. Fees are important.
Most consumer bankruptcy attorneys offer payment plans of some type and may be flexible regarding fees. If you really like one attorney but they’re fee quote was much higher than a competitor, don’t hesitate to tell the attorney that their fee is much higher. Many may be willing to negotiate the fees.
Brett Bodie is a consumer bankruptcy attorney with offices in Encino, Ca and Ventura, Ca. If you have any questions