Like many attorneys, I get calls from prospective clients asking me what my fee is for a bankruptcy filing. It’s not a particularly difficult question to answer – in theory. But at the same time, it is. Generally, I know that if their concern is price, then who they retain as their attorney is not all that important to them. But I also get calls from prospective clients who have or had another (and less expensive) attorney who now is not performing at what they believe is an acceptable level. Perhaps they aren’t returning calls. Perhaps they are not giving straight answers to honest questions. Or perhaps better said, the cheap attorney doesn’t know what the hell they are doing. The desire to go cheap has now turned into something expensive.
When I hear a client say “I have a straight -forward bankruptcy”, I’m forced to remind them that in the years since the enactment of BAPCPA, I’ve seen few “straight forward bankruptcies.” To me, a fairly straight-forward bankruptcy is one where the debtor earns a modest income, well below median, preferably on a pension or social security, with no assets of any sort, and only credit card and medical debt. In most cases like those, I’m not going to run into issues of exemptions, dischargeability or even good faith. I certainly hope I don’t run into issues where the debtor is named in the will of a relative who has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. And in many cases where a debtor earns little income or receives a pension or social security, they will often qualify for free legal services which is why I accept them only through the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association.
I also find that there is this incredible misconception that bankruptcy is just completing forms. With some regularity, there is a Pro Se Clinic that is geared to help people who are considering bankruptcy without hiring a lawyer. And when the clinic has been held in Boston, I’ve presented at it – helping potential debtors understand the importance of completing the forms correctly and completely. And while it is important to complete the forms correctly and completely, it takes more than that to successfully navigate through a bankruptcy case.
Also not helping the mis-perception that bankruptcy is “easy” are advertisements in phone books and on Craigslist that advertise bankruptcy on the cheap. Also, some of the ads are just amazingly scary. For example, I just scoured the Boston legal services ads and came across this gem (I copied and pasted it): “Maaschusetts Bankruptcy Attorney.” Misspelling the state of the jurisdiction that the lawyer practices law in should not (I repeat not) instill a sense of confidence in their attention to detail.
Frankly, but for the fact that GEICO has already spent a lot of money on the “caveman” ad campaign, I should be surprised that someone has not attempted to create the ad campaign that “Bankruptcy is so easy that even a caveman can do it!” (I actually double-checked before I posted this and have sadly confirmed that I am wrong… but it’s not a lawyer, it’s a petition preparer – who cannot give legal advice. Better illustrated: if your car is busted, are you going to hire a mechanic, or someone who can simply use the wrench correctly?).
And I’ve seen the disheartened look on people’s faces when I tell them that if they are serious about saving their home, then “cheap” will prove expensive. And it is even moreso disheartening for them when they hear that after they have already spent money on an attorney (and in most cases, money they could not afford to lose) and their bankruptcy case is imploding through no fault of their own.
I recently met with a client who told me that their attorney – whom they already paid a few thousand to – had bungled their case. I reviewed the file, and sure enough – the attorney made some errors that were not only avoidable, but only added to everyone’s costs and frustration. Some of these errors were so mind numbingly bad I question whether the attorney actually owned a copy of the local bankruptcy rules… since it was clear that they had never been read. While they paid the attorney a tidy sum, they didn’t pay the attorney what an experienced competent bankruptcy professional would charge for a fairly complex chapter 13 case with real estate. And for them, to get themselves out of the financial mess they find themselves in and to keep their home, they are now going to spend more than double that…and while I expect (based on what I know now) that they will get the relief they need, that relief will be delayed by all the time wasted with their first attorney.
My point is this: if you talk to a lawyer who says they can do your bankruptcy case for cheap, ask yourself: what’s it worth to you? What is it worth to know that the attorney you have handling the intimate details of your financial life knows what he or she is doing? What is it worth to enter your creditor’s meeting knowing what to expect, and to leave not being surprised (and that sentence is for the few debtors I saw today at creditor’s meetings who looked utterly disgusted at their attorneys’ job performances because their attorneys didn’t bring documents, did not complete forms correctly, and had completely ridiculous answers for otherwise routine questions…what my client later referred to as a ‘Lawyerpaloser’)? What is it worth to know that you should only have to file one case and pay one lawyer to get it done right the first time?
Ask yourself that now, and give yourself an honest answer. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll get the lawyer you need and the relief you deserve.
Or you can go cheap. And pay later.
- Honesty and Bankruptcy, Part III: The Reality Check and the Boy Scout
- Still Think You Can File Bankruptcy Without An Attorney?
- Social Networking Sites and Bankruptcy: The Intersection is Dead Ahead
- The Easy Life of a Consumer Bankruptcy Attorney
- What Does a Good Bankruptcy Attorney Do?