This is not a short article, but it is important. The more you think through your decision, the more power you have to get it right. Getting this decision right is the way the best solution for conquering your debt and launching yourself into a better situation.
The first step to finding the best bankruptcy lawyer for you is to know what you are looking for. Finding a lawyer is like finding a doctor or a painter. Every case is different. However, generally speaking, all people want the following three things in their bankruptcy lawyer.
Excellent work means your attorney has attention to detail. He or she will really listen to you and personally handle data entry for your important paperwork. The difference between having an ‘average’ lawyer and an excellent lawyer is the difference between losing a car or home and keeping your valuable things protected. It is the difference between your case being a mess requiring extra cost and taking extra months, and having your case completed quickly and painlessly.
Most importantly, having an excellent lawyer means you will be advised. Good advice is not just important for preventing disaster; it is good for creating benefit.
I can not tell you how many times I see clients who hired ‘average’ or ‘cheap’ lawyers that rushed through their case analysis. When all is done, the clients THINK that their case was a success. However, what they don’t know is that they could have had many more benefits then they got. Benefits that the ‘average’ lawyer didn’t even know about. For instance, sometimes waiting to file a case can save you a lot of money. Sometimes, you can even eliminate debt without bankruptcy. Did you know that you can sometimes get rid of your second mortgage with bankruptcy? Did you know that you can get rid of tax debt and some government over-payments? There are dozens of things like this that most lawyers, even bankruptcy lawyers don’t understand. The old saying is true here; you get you pay for. You can not afford to hire anyone but the best bankruptcy lawyer possible. The few hundred dollars you save with the ‘cheap’ guy, can cost you many thousands of dollars in lost opportunity.
TEST ONE: Is the Lawyer Excellent?
How do you know if a lawyer does excellent work? Here are some questions to consider:
- how many questions does your lawyer ask you during the initial consultation? If he just gives you a sheet to fill out or has you talk with a non-lawyer, forget it.
- does the lawyer seem to care about your overall situation? Is the lawyer asking what you will do AFTER bankruptcy, or is he just giving you a quick quote and not really getting deeply into understanding your situation?
- does the lawyer have a strong public presence?
- You want someone who does a lot of cases, but is personally handling your case. Ask how many cases the lawyer files each year. Now, some firms will say “thousands of cases” because they are ‘factories’ and the lawyers don’t do the cases personally but instead push off this important legal work to paralegals and other non-lawyers. If your lawyer files a lot of cases, that is great! Just make sure he or she personally handles the cases. I am generally in New York and New Jersey, but I know one great attorney who works with me in my California office. He files thousands per year but he manages and personally does each of his cases. He is very rare. The more questions you ask, the better for you!
- Is the lawyer listed in public directories and Better Business Bureau?
- Does the lawyer use technology like email, phones and other electronic measures to make your life easier? You definitely want someone with experience but you also want someone who keeps up with the times. That kind of lawyer will be more likely to be ‘up to date’ on all the newest ways to help you.
- Does the lawyer give you a flat fee up front? Or, does he ‘add on’ for everything. Some ‘cheap’ firms try to lowball the initial quote just to get you in. Then, they charge for all kinds of stuff including getting your credit report, making copies. In the end, you don’t save money and you get a yucky lawyer.
- Is your lawyer responsive? Does he or she respond to emails, answer phones, really pay attention to you? Any good lawyer will be busy, but does your lawyer seem to really care?
The next test is whether your lawyer provides good customer service.
Customer service is not just about being nice. If you are nervous or frustrated you are likely to make mistakes. If your bankruptcy lawyer doesn’t really engage with you, you will lose motivation and your case will be delayed. When my new jersey bankruptcy law office started a policy of taking ALL phone calls (never screening, and never putting clients to voice mail) we noticed that our clients were much more motivated to get there cases filed. This helped everybody!
So, here are some good customer service tests:
- how long does the lawyer take to reply to emails?
- can you always reach the lawyer when you call?
- does the lawyer ever yell at you or make you feel bad?
- does the lawyer try to be kind and make you feel like a dignified person?
- does the lawyer explain things in a way you understand, even if it takes more time?
- does the lawyer have payment plans?
- does the lawyer seem to be nice to his or her staff?
- does the lawyer speak well and politely?
TEST THREE: Test The Lawyers Fees
(Are the Excellent Fees, or Just Cheap Fees- understand the difference!)
People who have debt problems usually have one thing on their minds. That thing is saving money. They don’t have enough. Many folks can not even pay bills or rent. Credit card minimum payments are even too high. The calls are ringing off the hook. The last thing these people need is another thing to pay. This is the puzzle to be solved. On one hand you have no money and want to file bankruptcy. ON the other hand, you don’t want to ruin your life so you want to get an excellent attorney; excellent attorneys cost money.
To solve this puzzle you have to consider three things:
- what is the benefit. Even if you have to spend a couple thousand dollars, the benefit is that all the other headaches go away- permanently.
- what is the cost of not doing it right. You saw the discussion above about the dangers of not having an excellent attorney. The cost of not doing it right is that you lose more money, create problems for yourself and your family members and possibly even lose the bankruptcy.
“But wait, my case is really simple, I don’t need to spend more to get an “excellent” attorney.”
This is totally wrong! Here is why… Even the most simple case can be destroyed by an average attorney. Why? Because even if your case is simple, and you are totally honest, if the attorney is not excellent, he will make errors. Those errors will make you LOOK dishonest. Then the bankruptcy officials will pounce on you. Most of the messed up cases I have seen were simple cases. They were messed up becaue a sloppy lawyer or his assistant made a mistake that made a good honest person look inconsistent. You can not take chances with bankruptcy. The stakes are too high. You need to treat this almost like a medical emergency.
- Is The Lawyer Professional and Fair?
You now understand why you have to spend a little money for the best attorney possible. But that doesn’t mean you should get robbed. You have to be VERY careful out there. The very big and the very little are usually the most dangerous law firms. The very big ‘corporate’ firms might charge $800 per hour and might not understand your type of bankruptcy as much as a medium sized guy. The little “I will file your case for a peanut” type firms are also dangerous. They will give low fees but will not be excellent. You will lose big in the end. As an attorney practicing bankruptcy for many years in New York and New Jersey, I have seen that most Excellent Attorneys, who provide Excellent Customer Service are also fairly priced. Why? Because attorneys like that care about being good. They are probably successful, confident and understand the value of a dollar. They understand that money should be earned, not robbed. It is unlikely that you will be robbed and overcharged by an attorney who treats you well, and is well respected/established, and is careful and detail oriented.
It is hard to ‘fake’ caring about clients. You are smart. You know the difference between someone really cares and listens and someone who doesn’t really ask useful important questions. If the lawyer passes the other tests, you can pretty much trust the fee he or she gives you.
Remember, a case is like a painting job. Each house is different. Some houses have one room and others have 10. Some houses have complications like bad walls, leaks and complicated details that only a professional painter would understand. For this reason, it is really hard for a painter to know how much to charge until he really understands what he is painting. The good painter will investigate. He will do things methodically and sensibly. The ‘too good to be true’ painter is going to ruin your walls and you wont know until it is too late. Bankruptcy works the same way.
Yes, but what are some average prices?
Every case is different and there is even a difference according to region. You can imagine that it costs more to run an office in New York or New Jersey than it does in rural Michigan or Virginia. In the New York Metro Area, a good to excellent attorney will typically charge around $2,000 for a ‘typical’s case. In addition there are filing fees and credit counseling.
If you have nothing, no issues and a small amount of debt (like under $20,000) a fair attorney would do your case for around $1900 or less, even including filing fees. Call for a free consultation and see how the attorney makes you feel.
I typically the total cost of an average Chapter 7 Bankruptcy (average is $30,000+ of debt, maybe a car or another non-issue asset) would be between $2100 and $2500. If you have a lot of debt, a house or a business or a car with equity or any number of other things that require more preparation, the price will go up. Note: if such issues don’t increase your fees, make sure your attorney is really paying attention. Handling these things properly does take time. If an attorney doesn’t value his extra time, his time might not be valuable.
I am attorney David Waltzer, owner of Waltzer Law Group (Debt Solutions including Bankruptcy in New York and New Jersey). We do consumer bankruptcy, debt settlement and debt negotiation. I have handled thousands of cases in these areas. You can learn more about debt solutions and my firm at: WWW.WALTZERLAWGROUP.COM or www.BANKRUPTCYBEST.com.