What makes a “good” bankruptcy lawyer?
A good bankruptcy lawyer is one who is the right lawyer for you.
While that may seem straightforward, it still isn’t easy to begin looking for that “right bankruptcy lawyer for me.”
Paid Google Ads, skewed internet search results, the death of the Yellow Pages as a central source of information … All of these factors contribute to a whirlwind of phone-numbers and websites that, essentially, tend to make every bankruptcy lawyer look the same as any other.
How do you know when a bankruptcy attorney is actually right for you—or when that attorney just paid Google enough money to be listed first?
One thing is not the other.
So how do you find a good bankruptcy lawyer in Metro Detroit?
The Right Bankruptcy Lawyer: Ideal Qualities
Too many people look for 1 key quality in an attorney: price. Who is the cheapest? Which bankruptcy attorney will file that Chapter 7 for the least possible amount of money? Will that lawyer take payments before filing, or do I have to pay it all at once?
Obviously, price is something that everyone shops for in all matters, legal or otherwise. Why get your brakes fixed for $2,000 when this other auto shop will do the same job for $1,000? Right?
With legal services, price is the worst thing to shop for. Is the cheapest mechanic the best? Maybe. Is the cheapest lawyer the best?
We’ll discuss why this is and what other qualities you should be shopping for in a bankruptcy attorney below. And some others that should not form the basis of your decision.
The geographic location of a lawyer’s office is also a terrible reason to select one bankruptcy attorney over another.
Is it convenient that a lawyer’s office may happen to be near your home or workplace? Sure. But does that lawyer actually know anything about bankruptcy? Do they offer a grab-bag services without the necessary specialized expertise for this area of law? Did that attorney just pass the Bar last month?
It’s possible that the attorney with the “Bankruptcy” sign hanging over the door 1 block from your home may be an excellent bankruptcy attorney. However, that will just be coincidence, if so.
You need to do more homework than to simply compare addresses to find the right bankruptcy lawyer for you.
A Fancy Office
Is the attorney’s office in a swanky office building? Does the furniture in the waiting room look like it cost a million bucks? Does a chandelier hang over the receptionist’s desk?
That’s great, if so. Who wouldn’t want to sit and read a magazine in an office that looks just like the one that lawyer on TV had in your favorite legal drama?
Don’t be over-impressed by decoration. It may be that your prospective bankruptcy attorney has a fancy office because he or she is among the best in Southeast Michigan and has made a very good living helping people escape the trap of overwhelming debt.
On the other hand, that lawyer may be new in practice, with a high income spouse funding his or her new office digs—or who has beautiful furniture but hasn’t paid the office rent in 3 months.
You don’t know. Furniture means nothing. Although our firm maintains offices in both Detroit and Royal Oak, many excellent attorneys now operate virtual practices without any physical office at all, although this is more difficult in bankruptcy practice than in some other practice areas.
Again, dig deeper.
Bankruptcy Practice Experience
The best bankruptcy attorney for you will certainly be one who has some experience with actual bankruptcy practice. The more, the better, in fact, so long as it has been successful experience for his or her past clients.
Don’t be afraid to ask your prospective bankruptcy lawyer some questions, such as:
- How long have you been practicing bankruptcy law in Metro Detroit?
- How many Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases have you filed?
- How many were successfully completed?
- Have you ever been sanctioned by a judge?
- Are you Board Certified in Bankruptcy Law?
- Do other attorneys refer complex cases to you?
- Or do you refer complex cases to other attorneys?
However, this quality consideration feeds into the next two: Customer Service and level of Attorney Contact.
Customer Service & Attorney Contact
Don’t be overly impressed by an attorney who claims to have 40 years of experience, however. It doesn’t you any good to shop for experience when you only see that experienced bankruptcy attorney at your initial consultation—and, then, never again.
If the answer to the “How many cases have you filed?” question above is that the firm has filed thousands of cases and that it files hundreds every month, you should ask a number of follow-up questions to ensure that your case will actually receive the attention it deserves.
A small law firm that files hundreds and hundreds of cases per month is known as a “bankruptcy mill.” Hiring these “volume practices” means that you are throwing yourself onto an assembly line, with, likely, only minimal oversight by the attorney you meet with initially.
Generally, you should ask some further questions, along these lines:
- How often will I actually see that attorney versus a paralegal or much less experienced associate?
- Who drafts my petition and schedules for filing? An attorney or a paralegal?
- Who will appear in court with you?
- Do you hire “appearance attorneys” (who are paid a few bucks to show up with you in court) for court appearances?
- Who will answer my question when I have one?
- If a Chapter 13, does the firm review every proof of claim filed by creditors? How many objections to proofs of claim has it filed? How many has it won?
- And so on.
This said, it is important to remember that attorneys, like all professionals, maintain business hours. They have families and lives outside of the office.
An attorney who tells you that phone-calls will only be returned within certain timeframes or that a paralegal will be handling some level of the paperwork involved in your bankruptcy matter is not necessarily providing poor customer service.
It means that the law firm has internal processes that allow it to charge the probably not-sky-high flat fees for your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case for which you are likely hoping.
Working with your bankruptcy lawyer’s preferred internal process while ensuring that you are working with a licensed and experienced attorney where it matters is the key.
Back to Price Now …
As to your price-shopping, you are well within your rights to raise the cost of the bankruptcy attorney’s services as a priority concern.
Everyone would. It’s natural.
However, it’s important to keep your expectations realistic.
Most bankruptcy attorneys in Michigan charge a flat fee for Chapter 7 bankruptcies. Some charge more than others. Some allow you to pay in increments, while others require the payment in full upon retainer.
Still others dubiously allow you to make payments after the filing of the bankruptcy case. (This practice is prohibited in most jurisdictions throughout the United States—other than in the Eastern District of Michigan, where a single Bankruptcy Court judicial decision allows it under certain circumstances only.)
Chapter 13 bankruptcy is not (usually) a flat-fee legal service. Attorney fees hourly, in most cases. Most reputable bankruptcy attorneys require the payment of a lump sum retainer fee to initiate the process. However, the larger percentage of this more expensive bankruptcy process are paid to the attorney, through the Chapter 13 payment plan. That is, through the Bankruptcy Court, after filing.
The difference from attorney to attorney will be the amount of the initial retainer required.
There are some Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorneys who will accept retainers for “no money down,” or no retainer fee at all.
As with the Chapter 7 attorneys who allow you to pay them after filing, you get what you pay for.
An attorney who is willing to work for nothing or for free may be an attorney who is either desperate for business due to inexperience—or is one who is operating or attempting to operate a bankruptcy mill.
Let the buyer beware.
How to Find a Good Bankruptcy Lawyer: The Bottom Line
The bottom line with regard to finding a good bankruptcy lawyer in Detroit is that you have to look for an attorney who represents a good balance of all of the qualities described above. Yes, price is important under your present circumstances. Yes, you don’t want to drive halfway across Michigan to meet with a lawyer.
However, don’t settle on a random bankruptcy lawyer for one of those two main wrong reasons.
In general, bankruptcy attorneys in Metro Detroit do not charge you an arm and a leg for their services. It is possible to find an attorney who offers experience, customer service, convenience, and value—if you look hard enough.
Attorney Walter Metzen is a Board Certified Bankruptcy Expert who has successfully represented thousands of Metro Detroit Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 clients for over 30 years.
The Law Offices of Walter Metzen & Associates offers clients not only expertise but direct, friendly, and responsive customer service.
Contact us now to schedule your free, initial consultation.