Having represented people all over the Tampa Bay area for the past 14 years, I’ve seen the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to bankruptcy lawyers. While we are lucky to have many brilliant and caring attorneys around here, let’s just say there are also a lot of lawyers that are a disservice to the profession. I suppose the same could be said for any area of business. We’re not all the same. The problem for someone considering filing for bankruptcy is two-fold. Number one; there is a lot at stake! A poorly timed, poorly filed, or ill-advised bankruptcy can cost someone their car, their home, their life savings, or more. Hiring the wrong lawyer can be devastating. Number two; there is not a “ranking” system out there where consumers can find out who to hire and who to avoid. I suppose this is why people fall for clever advertising schemes to get clients in the door. A lawyer with a funny TV commercial, a clever radio ad, or a shiny new billboard guarantees you nothing but a lawyer that is good at marketing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! The two are not mutually exclusive. Some great attorneys in the Tampa Bay area are also great advertisers. So what SHOULD you look for in a bankruptcy attorney?
Location, location, location
Hiring a lawyer is not like buying a fast food hamburger. You do not need to stop at the one closest to your house. If you have to drive a ways to see the right attorney for you, make the drive. Our main office is in St. Petersburg and we have an office in Bradenton as well, but we have clients come from Clearwater, Brandon, Sarasota, Parrish, Tampa, Largo, Palm Harbor, etc… The point is, you will only need to make that drive and meet at your lawyer’s office maybe a handful of times. Often, our clients come to the office only three times (sign up / paperwork review / petition signing). So do not be afraid to travel a bit to find the right lawyer for you. The rewards of hiring the right lawyer far outweigh the minutes saved by hiring the first one you drive by when leaving your house.
There is nothing wrong with a young lawyer. Every lawyer was new at some point. However, before I sign up with a law firm, I want to know there is a bankruptcy lawyer in that office that has been doing this for a while. There is no substitute for experience. Now, experience is not necessarily gauged by years. A 20-year lawyer who files 5 bankruptcy petitions a year is no more experienced than a 5-year lawyer who files 200 a year. Do not be afraid to ask questions! “How long have you been doing this? How many bankruptcies do you file?”
Fees and Costs
Hiring a bankruptcy lawyer will cost you money. There is no way around that. Some expenses, such as “filing fees”, are set by the federal government. No matter who you hire, those costs will remain fixed. What the lawyer charges is a different story. Not all lawyers are created equal, so calling around and going with the cheapest quote is not a good plan. I don’t subscribe to the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” There are plenty of bad attorneys that charge a lot of money, so that line of thinking does not really work. HOWEVER, when someone charges a fee substantially below market value you do have to ask yourself, why? Is it because the lawyer is new and has no reputation, so undercutting the market is the only way to bring in work? Is that the lawyer best suited to help you? Why has this lawyer valued his or her services so much lower than everyone else?
There is good news when it comes to legal fees in bankruptcy. The lawyer has to disclose the amount of the fee charged to the client in the bankruptcy petition. The courts only allow lawyers to charge a “reasonable” fee. What is reasonable? Well it depends on the jurisdiction. You can rest easy that the judges will not allow a lawyer to charge you way above the “going rate” for your bankruptcy. The judges do a good job at keeping the fees all within a reasonable “ballpark.” Therefore, fees should not be the driving factor in your decision. You have to certainly consider your budget, but there are far more important factors at play.
Trust your instincts! How comfortable were you when you met with that lawyer? Did the lawyer take time to listen to what you had to say? Did you even meet with a lawyer at all? Some firms have non-lawyers do initial consultations. Whenever I hear that I feel uneasy. You mean to tell me that you sat through a bankruptcy consultation and received no legal advice? It is illegal for a non-lawyer to give legal advice so either the law firm is breaking the law or providing you no legal advice. Neither of those options are any good. Did the lawyer explain the process? Were the different chapters of bankruptcy explained to you? Were you told about any risks? Is this lawyer just telling you what you want to hear? You may not know too much about the law, but you know when you have a good connection with someone. You know when someone has a good understanding of their craft. If you feel uneasy or unsure, schedule yourself a consultation somewhere else. You may find a law firm that makes you more comfortable or you might even realize that the first place you went was right for you after all. I previously pointed out that there was a lot at stake here. Do not pull the trigger on signing up with a law firm if you are uncomfortable with the lawyer.
You can never know for sure that you hired the right lawyer until your case is resolved, but you can certainly improve your odds. Do your homework. Ask around. During a consultation ask as many questions as you can think of. Maybe you are reading this article but you do not live in or near the Tampa Bay area. If you have questions about a certain attorney or want to know what to ask during a consultation, feel free to call me. I’ll always give you an honest assessment and try to steer you in the right direction.