If you're considering bankruptcy, you're likely in dire financial straits, perhaps with crushing medical bills or credit card debt. You may think hiring an attorney is just one more bill you can't afford.
The truth is, you probably can't afford not to hire an attorney for bankruptcy if you plan on filing. Bankruptcy is a complex process handled in the federal courts. You want to get it right, or you could end up in worse financial shape than you're in now.
You likely have questions about whether an attorney is required to file for bankruptcy and, if so, how you should go about finding one. This guide explains why a bankruptcy attorney is recommended, what one can do for you and how to choose the best bankruptcy attorney for your financial situation.
Why do you need an attorney to file for bankruptcy?
While an attorney is not strictly required to file for bankruptcy, seeking the legal advice of a knowledgeable bankruptcy attorney is strongly recommended by legal experts. A missed legal filing or a simple error can worsen an already challenging financial situation. Some mistakes, such as missing your meeting of creditors, can even result in the total dismissal of your case.
You might also need to find out which chapter of bankruptcy is best for you. Are you trying to hold on to your home or other assets? Should you file Chapter 7, Chapter 11 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy? An experienced attorney knowledgeable in bankruptcy laws and court procedures can advise you on the following:
- Which chapter of bankruptcy to file
- Whether you can keep your home, car or other assets
- Tax considerations
- Which debts can and can't be discharged under bankruptcy
- Whether you should keep paying your creditors
- How to handle debt collectors
Even if you're unsure if bankruptcy is the right solution to your financial problem, an attorney can help you determine both whether you qualify, and walk you through your options if you don't. If bankruptcy doesn't make sense for your situation, an experienced bankruptcy attorney can suggest alternatives, such as reaching out to a debt relief agency.
How do you find a suitable attorney for your bankruptcy team?
If you've decided bankruptcy is your best option, the first step is to hire a team to help you through the process. This should involve more than asking Siri or Google to "find a Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorney near me." The following resources should help you find a reputable bankruptcy firm to guide you through what can be a stressful and emotional experience.
Friends and family referrals
As embarrassing and humbling as it may be to ask people you know if they can recommend a good personal bankruptcy attorney, friends and family can often be the best source for finding a trustworthy and knowledgeable attorney.
If you know anyone who has gone through bankruptcy, ask them for a recommendation. Even if they tell you they wouldn't recommend their attorney, that will be one attorney or firm you'll know to avoid.
If you don't feel comfortable asking family or friends for a referral, the online resources we outline below can aid you in your search.
National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys
The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA), an organization specifically for bankruptcy attorneys, provides a feature for searching for NACBA members. You can search by zip code and narrow the results. Then, you can make a list of possibilities to research further.
The American Bar Association
Another online resource that can assist you in finding a bankruptcy attorney is the American Bar Association. The ABA site also has a database that will allow you to search for attorneys who specialize in bankruptcy. Only lawyers and firms that meet ABA standards are listed on the site. You can also try your local State Bar Association website.
What to look for in an attorney for the bankruptcy process
Once you have a list of possible bankruptcy attorneys in your area, research each one to decide whom you want to meet with for a consultation. At this point, don't worry whether you might need a bankruptcy attorney for Chapter 7 or one for Chapter 11. A "chapter" bankruptcy attorney will likely have experience with both, and it's that attorney who can help you determine under which chapter you should file.
The following criteria — from a bankruptcy attorney's cost to their experience — can help you shortlist the attorneys you might consider hiring.
Some attorneys have experience in many areas of law, from family law to personal injury cases. Still, when it comes to bankruptcy, you want to choose an attorney or firm that not only specializes in bankruptcy law but has plenty of experience both in and out of court. Not every bankruptcy case requires extensive court proceedings, but some do.
The more complex your bankruptcy filing, the more experienced you may want your lawyer to be. Some states allow lawyers to receive specialist certifications in particular areas of law. So, it might be worth taking the time to determine if your state certifies bankruptcy attorneys.
When researching attorneys, it's important to know that there are different chapters of bankruptcy filings. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is for businesses. So, you can remove any business bankruptcy attorney primarily dealing with Chapter 11 bankruptcy from your list of prospects. If you're filing personal bankruptcy, you need a bankruptcy attorney for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.
Just because an attorney specializes in more than one area of law doesn’t mean you should discount them. You can ask what percentage of their cases are bankruptcies. However, if their experience is primarily in something other than bankruptcies, you might be better off finding a firm or lawyer with more experience.
Size of the law firm
When choosing a law firm, a common question is whether to choose a large or small firm. Both have their pros and cons. A large firm may have more resources and collective bankruptcy experience. However, you might find a large firm too impersonal. The bigger the firm, the more clients they are likely to have.
Some large firms can also charge more than smaller firms. A smaller, more personable firm may be a more affordable bankruptcy attorney choice.
If you're unsure which firm size is best, schedule a consultation with both. You can get a fee schedule as well as a feel for how much personal attention your case is likely to get.
Perhaps the most concerning factor in choosing an attorney is bankruptcy attorney costs and fees. How much your bankruptcy will cost depends on several factors, including the state in which you live, the firm you hire and the type of bankruptcy you file.
In many cases, a Chapter 13 filing will cost more than a Chapter 7 filing. Your case’s complexity will also play a big part in how much it costs you, regardless of which chapter of bankruptcy you file under.
Since an attorney will only be able to ascertain the complexity of your case once you have hired them, they will likely only be able to provide you with their general fees for bankruptcy. However, you’ll also want to verify when and how fees must be paid for their services.
Bankruptcy attorney fees are typically handled in one of two ways. If you're filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and your case is not too complex, you'll likely have to pay your attorney before filing your bankruptcy petition with the court.
Once you file a bankruptcy, your creditors can't come after you for your outstanding debts, which could include your attorney fees if they aren't paid upfront. Since Chapter 13 requires that you go on a payment plan to pay back your creditors, you can roll your attorney fees into your repayment plan.
Hiring a bankruptcy attorney means hiring someone to dig through your finances — from your credit score and your monthly income to your overuse of credit cards. As embarrassing as it may be, you must be totally honest with your attorney about your financial situation. Having an attorney you feel you can trust with what you may consider your dirty financial laundry is essential.
Another essential trait to consider beyond trust is communication. You need an attorney who can explain the complex legal issues of bankruptcy procedures so you fully understand what to expect and what would be the likely outcome. You want someone willing to explain all the legalese and not expect you to simply trust them to do their job without much input from you.
That said, you do need to be prepared for advice that might be hard to hear. Remember that your attorney's job is to help you fix your financial situation. So, be ready to listen to some tough advice regarding your spending and money management.
Do you really need a bankruptcy lawyer?
A lawyer is not required to file for bankruptcy. You have the right to "pro se" representation, meaning you'll represent yourself during the court proceedings, and you can find plenty of resources that explain how to file for bankruptcy.
However, you need to know that no one in the court system — from the judge to the court clerks — is permitted to give you legal advice. Also, bankruptcy filings require a lot of documentation that must be filled out correctly and filed with the court on time beyond the initial bankruptcy petition. A filing error or missed deadline can harm your case.
Will you know how to proceed if your case gets dismissed or if some of your debt discharge requests get denied? Sure, even with a lawyer, these things could happen, but a lawyer will know the steps to possibly avoid these situations and any recourse you may have if they do happen.
What if you are about to lose your home or car? Bankruptcy isn't a fast process. An "emergency" bankruptcy attorney will know that an emergency bankruptcy filing may allow you to stay in your home.
An added benefit of hiring a bankruptcy attorney is that they will relieve you of the stress of dealing with any debt collectors' calls you're getting. Once you’ve notified a collector that you have retained an attorney, they are required to contact your lawyer instead of you.
What warning signs you should watch for
When deciding on a bankruptcy attorney, there are a few warning signs to watch for that should make you think twice about hiring a particular attorney or firm.
Steer clear of law firms that handle too many bankruptcy cases to give any one client's case the attention and time it deserves. Yes, experienced bankruptcy attorneys know all nuances of the bankruptcy process, but each case is different and requires attention.
You’ll likely get a feel for a firm's commitment to client service and attention or lack thereof during the initial consultation. Trust your instincts and move on if you feel they can't be bothered to provide you with one-on-one assistance.
Don't necessarily trust raving online reviews of attorneys. Be sure to do your due diligence. Many reviews may be legitimate, but some may be from family members or friends simply trying to help a loved one or a buddy attract more online leads.
Don't bother with an attorney that charges a fee for the initial consultation. An understanding bankruptcy attorney knows you're already experiencing financial hardship and would not ask you to pay just to determine whether you qualify for bankruptcy or if their firm might be a good fit for you.
By taking steps to find a reputable attorney rather than relying on an internet search engine to "find a business bankruptcy attorney near me," you can better avoid these situations.
Find the right attorney to help you through a difficult time
The decision to file for bankruptcy is a challenging one for most people. It might feel like you've somehow failed at managing your money, but bankruptcy exists to help people regain their financial freedom and footing.
Finding the right bankruptcy attorney to guide you through the process can help make a complicated process more manageable and ensure you come out of it better than when you started. The cost of a bankruptcy attorney might seem unaffordable, but you'll realize it's money well spent if bankruptcy is your only option.