Each year, hundreds of thousands of people file either a Chapter 7 individual bankruptcy to rid themselves of debts or a Chapter 13 case to repay all or a portion of their debts and retain their assets. Most have attorneys, some do not. As you are dealing with a process that allows the court to possibly strip away your assets and/or eliminate or at least minimize the debts you owe, the stakes are high. A qualified attorney can make all the difference between a fresh start and false start. Be smart and protect yourself fully.
Should you hire an attorney at all? As in most areas of law, the law allows you to represent yourself – in legalese it’s called “pro se” or “pro se” filing. You can go pro se even in a criminal trial. But would you? Likely not. Filing a bankruptcy yourself may not involve risking your personal liberty but may very well risk your financial one.
Even for the simplest of cases, you’ll have to provide detailed information about your income, expenses, creditors, property, and financial transactions over the past few years. To file on your own, you will also have to be thoroughly familiar with what property you can exempt from the reach of the court. Exemptions are complicated and they need to be applied wisely and carefully. See our prior blog about bankruptcy exemptions. https://jcklaw.com/portfolio/small-business-bankruptcy-options-and-beyond/. Keep in mind, if you don’t use it then you may lose it (a car, cash, a tax refund, or even the home you live in).
Some lawyers focus on working with individuals filing Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases. We call those consumer bankruptcy lawyers. Other lawyers work primarily with businesses to file Chapter 11 reorganization cases and Chapter 7 cases. Those we call business or commercial bankruptcy lawyers. At JCKLAW we have handled both individual chapter 7 and 13’s (in the thousands) and complex business chapter 7 and chapter 11 cases as well. The threshold decision to explore is which, in fact, serves as the best option for you – a chapter 7, 13, or business chapter 7 or 11. And even a non-bankruptcy option. These are vital issues that only a qualified attorney can analyze and help you decide from the get go.
Mill versus Boutique
Many consumer bankruptcy attorneys work in solo practices or with just a few other lawyers, a paralegal and other clerical helpers as needed. Some attorneys have worked to leverage the use of non-lawyer paraprofessionals. These lawyers rely very heavily on paralegal and clerical workers to do the bulk of the work, with one or a few lawyers supervising the staff. Some people call those bankruptcy mills. As a client in a mill environment, you may not meet with an attorney until the day of your appearance in court, and sometimes those attorneys who appear at court are not actually members of the firm but what are called “per diem” attorneys – subcontracting lawyers who are hired just to attend the hearing. Furthermore, bankruptcy mills do not necessarily charge less for their services than other attorneys. Fees are governed by the market and are reviewed by the US Trustee’s Office. Keep in mind also that some bankruptcy judges are not fond of these per diem or “appearance” counsels. You’ll probably find that most consumer lawyers in your area charge about the same amount. In a bankruptcy mill, the roles within the firm are usually very specialized. You may deal with a paralegal who intakes your information, a paralegal who explains the process, a paralegal who helps you gather the information you need for filing a case, etc. You may deal with an attorney who handles the meeting of creditors, and a different attorney if you have any issues in your case. For the most part, many clients may feel that they are treated like cattle and a lack of the “personal touch” leaves them feeling underserved.
For a better feel, a traditional solo or small boutique firm practice is ideal. It’s less of a corporate or assembly line feel, and much easier access to the attorney actually handling your file. At JCKLAW our attorneys are hands on. While highly trained paralegals may handle some of the work flow (probably better that the attorneys!), you can be assured that JCKLAW attorneys know your case, know you, and know how best to manage and deal with the individual issues that arise in each case, as they usually do.
WHERE TO START YOUR SEARCH
There is no shortage of attorneys looking for an opportunity to provide services to you. They try to speak to you from your TV set during late night programming or stare at you from billboards with their arms crossed. But it’s hard to know whether you should go with a lawyer whose telephone number you’ve memorized from his advertising jingle, or whether you should dig deeper to find someone who might offer you more personalized service. Here are some tips.
Pro Bono Services
If you are truly “penniless” the first place to look is local associations. They may offer ‘pro bono” legal services. Pro bono is more legalese signifying free legal aid. As such, look to local organizations – local law schools, bar associations, and even the bankruptcy court. These nonprofit organizations provide civil legal services for people of very modest means. Their income requirements are pretty strict but it may be worth a look.
As JCKLAW has been serving bankruptcy clients in New York and New Jersey for many years, a majority of our clients come from prior client referrals and professional colleagues. In fact, we spend a lot of time updating our website and conducting local seminars and hardly have any traditional advertising such as newspapers, radio or television. Former clients kindly pass on our contact information to their friends, coworkers and relatives. If you want a personal recommendation from someone, you will most likely have to discuss your need, and some people find it uncomfortable to talk about their financial struggles. You may find, however, that many people close to you have either dealt with similar issues or know someone who has. By some accounts, over the course of a lifetime, one out of every ten adults will file a bankruptcy case. You are not alone.
First, your local bar association will also have a referral service. Try there first. And, of course, there is the Internet, and plenty of online referral service available at your fingertips. If you call or inquire online, they will provide you free of charge with a list of members who practice the specialty you seek. Over the last 20 years, online legal referral services have mushroomed. Many of these websites also offer articles on different legal topics, including bankruptcy. Some of more popular services are
These sites will provide a randomized list of attorneys who practice in your area. There is no cost to you for the referral list. Attorneys pay to have their names listed on the sites. These online referral services are a resource but they are anonymous and operate like a national mill type firm with no direct ties to the actual attorney they list. It’s best to keep that in mind.
The Internet generally is full of sites that allow for some screening as you embark on your search. Well known site like Yelp and Google Reviews can also help, although they are better suited for restaurants and other non-professional services. What happens when you search for “New York bankruptcy lawyer”? The first listings will be sponsored content. Those attorneys have paid for the privilege of appearing at the top of your search list. Why? Because these firms put money into advertising to grab as many clients as possible. It’s a numbers game to them. Unfortunately, it may well be the case that those advertising dollars would be better spent in actually advocating on behalf of the clients they already have. This is not always the case. Often in court, I see a debtor looking around for their attorney whom they do not even know. When a JCKLAW attorney attends a hearing with a client, we know them. Making our clients feel that they are in good hands when facing the intimidating and the unknown of a court hearing is priority number one for us – throughout the entire process we strive to be a trusted confidant who knows their case and is there to protect you.
Whether a bankruptcy mill type firm or boutique firm practitioners, it’s hard to tell what you’re getting from the ads or even from their websites. It’s best to call and speak to someone and get a “feel” for the firm. Do a little research (Yelp reviews, the firm’s website, etc.), make some calls, have a few consultations and, ultimately, trust your gut.
If you are interested in getting a “feel” for JCKLAW to see if we are the right advocates for you, contact our office at 718-539-1100 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.