Several of my staff are out of the office this afternoon, so I’m pulling phone duty.  A man just called and said he was shopping bankruptcy attorneys and had “several questions” but his first was “how much?” for an individual Chapter 7. I told him the fees and costs and he replied “so you’re the most expensive one in Orlando.” (I know for a fact that I am not the most expensive, by the way.)

He didn’t ask any other questions or let the conversation go any further, which was a mistake.  Here’s why:  Obviously, bankruptcy is hot right now. Other areas are not so hot and the attorneys whose wells are drying up are looking for other wells to dip into.  This is a big issue and problem, at least here in Central Florida, where attorneys inexperienced in bankruptcy buy the software and then start undercutting the market. This is a classic example of “you get what you pay for.”

So, you may ask: “What’s the difference? A lawyer is a lawyer.” Or “How do you know if I’m getting a good lawyer or not-so-good-lawyer?” Here are my thoughts:

What’s the difference? A lawyer is a lawyer, right?

Experts say filing a bankruptcy is one of the top five most traumatic events that can happen in an American’s adult life, right up there with death of a loved one and divorce. It’s a big deal. The law in this area is complex, with requirements and timelines that can be unforgiving if missed. While we may make it look like it’s just filling out some forms and showing up a time or two to places, it’s much more complex. The experienced attorneys make it look easy because that’s our job, and we do it well.

Think of it this way: Would you ask a family doctor to perform open heart surgery on you? Just like a doctor can’t (and shouldn’t) practice in all areas of medicine, an attorney can’t (and shouldn’t) practice in all areas of the law; it simply is too vast and too detailed for one person to master.

If you are seriously considering bankruptcy, take the time to find an attorney experienced in bankruptcy. The experienced attorney’s fees may be a hundred or so higher than the other guys, but… you know it’s coming… You get what you pay for.

So, what questions should you ask a bankruptcy lawyer?

Here are questions I recommend. An experienced attorney will not be offended and will be happy to answer them.

  1. How much of your practice has been bankruptcy since the new law hit in 2005? (the answer needs to be at least 50% or higher)
  2. How many bankruptcies have you completed since the law change in 2005?
  3. Did you do bankruptcy before the law changed?  If yes, how long?
  4. Are you involved in any voluntary bankruptcy bar groups? (The answer to this really needs to be at least NACBA –National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.)
  5. Do the local bankruptcy judges know who you are? (You need a “yes” for this one.)
  6. Can you name all of the local Chapter 7 Trustees, and do they all know who you are? (You need a “yes.”)
  7. Who is the local Chapter 13 Trustee, and does he/she know who you are?
  8. Who is the UST for this area, and do they know who you are?

If the attorney you are considering trusting with your major lifetime event cannot comfortably answer these questions to your satisfaction, then I will suggest you move on and find someone who can.