Before you hire an attorney to help you file for bankruptcy, be sure to do your homework. Start by evaluating whether you need a bankruptcy lawyer to represent you. Then check around to get several good leads, meet with each lawyer nd ask questions in order to evaluate his or her services and fees, and, once you select an attorney, get everything in writing so that expectations are clear. Finally, if things go sour, decide if you'll need to fire your bankruptcy lawyer.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File for Bankruptcy?
Before you start looking for a bankruptcy lawyer, figure out if you need one. There is no law requiring that you hire an attorney in order to file for bankruptcy – you are free to fill out the paperwork and file on your own. But before you jump at the chance to save on attorney fees, carefully consider whether this is a good path for you.
Whether you should forgo an attorney and file for bankruptcy on your own depends on many factors, such as:
- Are you filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy?
- Do you have time and energy to learn about the process, research the law, and fill out a lengthy packet of papers?
- Is your Chapter 7 bankruptcy simple or complicated? (To learn more about what constitutes a simple bankruptcy, and other things you should consider before representing yourself, see Filing for Bankruptcy Without an Attorney.)
If you do end up filing on your own, avoid these common pitfalls when filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy without an attorney.
Where Should I Look for Bankruptcy Attorneys?
First off, limit your search to lawyers who specialize in bankruptcy. Avoid lawyers whose practice consists of everything but the kitchen sink. Aim to get the names of at least three lawyers. Here’s where to look:
- referrals from family, friends, other lawyers who have help you (this is always the best place to start)
- employer sponsored group legal plan, if you have one
- county or state bar lawyer referral panels, and
- Internet directories (look for directories that provide lots of information about each attorney). (To learn more about each of these options, as well as ways to get assistance if you are filing on your own, see How to Find a Bankruptcy Lawyer).
How to Choose the Best Bankruptcy Lawyer for My Case?
Once you get a few names of recommended bankruptcy lawyers, meet with each one. You want to find out if he or she has enough experience for your particular case, is familiar with local court rules and bankruptcy trustees, how much he or she charges and what services those fees will cover, and how the attorney or his or her staff will communicate with you. Go the appointment armed with this list of questions to ask a bankruptcy attorney.
How Much Will I Have to Pay My Bankruptcy Attorney?
Average bankruptcy attorney fees vary by region. For Chapter 7 bankruptcy, fees range from about $1,000 to $2,500 nationwide. (Get more details in Average Attorney Fees in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.)
Attorney fees for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy are higher – usually ranging from about $2,500 to $5,500. Many courts have local rules or fee guidelines which set fee amounts that are deemed to be “reasonable.” Bankruptcy attorneys usually don’t stray far from these fees unless your case will require more work than usual. (To learn how to find fee guidelines in your district, typical payment arrangements for Chapter 13 fees, and more, see Average Attorney Fees in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.)
Once you’ve selected an attorney and agreed on the fees, you and the attorney should sign a contract (called a retainer agreement) that clearly states the fees and what services the attorney will provide. Here’s a handy guide of what you should include in your bankruptcy retainer agreement and what to watch out for.
Can I Fire My Bankruptcy Lawyer?
Even the best laid plans can go wrong. If you have a minor complaint (or sometimes even a major complaint), it’s usually best to talk to your lawyer. You may be able to clear up the issue and move on.
But sometimes the problem is too serious to fix or the attorney fails to address the issue after you confront him or her. Examples might include: your attorney fails to communicate with you about your case, your attorney doesn’t have the skill or experience to handle your particular case, or your attorney fails to show up for court hearings or misses court deadlines. In such a situation you may have to fire your bankruptcy lawyer.
If you fire your lawyer, you may be entitled to a refund of fees you already paid. It will depend on what your retainer agreement says, how much work the lawyer has done, and sometimes whether the fee was unreasonable. To learn more, see If I Fire My Bankruptcy Attorney, What Fees Will I Owe?