If you are considering filing bankruptcy in Phoenix or Mesa, Arizona, you are likely already in a stressful situation, and the search for the right attorney to guide you through the bankruptcy process can sometimes only add to the stress.  Sure, doing a basic Google search will bring up dozens of results of lawyers and law firms offering bankruptcy services.  But, how do you know if the lawyer’s website or online profile reflects the lawyer’s true skill and abilities, and how do you know which lawyer will be best for your specific case?  In this article, I will discuss the factors to consider, and things to watch out for when choosing a bankruptcy attorney.

 

Choosing a Bankruptcy Attorney is a Personal Decision

The ultimate goal in choosing a bankruptcy lawyer is that you select someone who will be right for you.  On the very basic level, this means that you have to be comfortable with your lawyer.  For example, if you do not feel that you can ask your bankruptcy lawyer a question, or if the lawyer cannot answer your questions in a way that you can understand, then you will likely not be confident and comfortable about other aspects of the bankruptcy process.  A lawyer’s skill and qualifications are certainly very important, but generally should not override this first requirement—no matter where you live, chances are there is more than one bankruptcy attorney in your area that is competent to handle your specific case, and choosing the attorney you are most comfortable with will make the bankruptcy process much easier are less stressful.

You cannot determine if an attorney is right for you without actually speaking to the attorney.  When you do, do not be shy about asking questions.  The more questions you ask, the more opportunity you get to evaluate how you and the lawyer will work together.  It is also a good way to evaluate the lawyer’s knowledge and skill—a good lawyer will be able to explain the bankruptcy process and discuss the possible issues that may come up in a way that is understandable to a non-lawyer.

You should never choose an attorney based solely on the information you find online, including online reviews.  First, you can never be certain how accurate the information is.  Second, when it comes to attorney review sites, the ratings can often be manipulated, or are based on factors that have nothing to do with the attorney’s skill and experience, and more to do with how actively the attorney promotes him/herself.  Sometimes, the ratings are even affected by whether the attorney pays for a listing on the website.  In fact, one prominent website is notorious for giving low ratings to highly experienced and well-regarded attorney, while giving excellent ratings to attorneys who are much less experienced but advertise much more heavily.  Third, in extreme cases, it is not unheard of for online reviews to be manipulated, or to be altogether fake.  In short, the information you find online may be useful as part of an initial review process, but you must always personally speak with and evaluate a lawyer before you hire them.

Next, let’s look at some other factors you should consider.

Determine whether you need a consumer or business bankruptcy attorney

Whether you require a consumer bankruptcy (personal bankruptcy) or a business bankruptcy is one of the most important factors in choosing the right attorney.  Consumer and business bankruptcies are very different.  Individuals (consumers) usually file either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.  Businesses, on the other hand, normally file under Chapter 11.  While there are some similarities in the processes under the different chapters, they are very different in many important respects.  Additionally, many bankruptcy lawyers focus on either a consumer or business bankruptcy, and have either minimal or no experience with the types of bankruptcy on which they do not focus.  However, there are some bankruptcy attorneys that regularly handle both business and personal bankruptcy.

When choosing a bankruptcy attorney, you want a lawyer with significant experience in the type of bankruptcy that you require.  If you are filing personal bankruptcy, you likely want a lawyer who regularly files Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies.  On the other hand, if you are considering bankruptcy for a business, you want a lawyer with experience in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

There are situations when you may not know whether you need a personal or business bankruptcy.  If you own a small business and are considering bankruptcy, you are likely in this situation.  This is because most small business owners are personally liable on the business’s debt, or have their financial affairs so intertwined with the business that they cannot be untangled.  For such situations, an attorney who handles both personal and business bankruptcies is particularly useful, because the attorney can evaluate the financial affairs of both the owner and the business, and advise on the benefits and drawbacks of filing a personal versus business bankruptcy.

The easiest way to determine if a lawyer focuses on personal bankruptcy or business bankruptcy, or handles both, is to look at their website or other advertising materials.  For example if the website talks extensively about personal bankruptcy and makes no mention of business bankruptcy, or only mentions it briefly, chances are good that the lawyer does not handle business bankruptcy cases, or does not have sufficient experience with business cases.  But it is not enough to rely on advertising materials.  If you decide to contact the attorney, you should always directly ask about the attorney’s experience with the type of bankruptcy that you need.

Choose the right bankruptcy lawyer based on the complexity of your case

The next factor to consider is whether your bankruptcy is simple or complex.  This only applies to personal bankruptcies.  All business bankruptcies should be assumed to be complex—if you go through a business bankruptcy and it seems simple, it is only because your lawyer’s skill made it look like that.  On the personal bankruptcy side, however, the simplicity or complexity of the bankruptcy may affect the type of attorney you choose and the bankruptcy’s cost.

There are different types of personal bankruptcy attorneys.  Some try to compete by charging the lowest fees possible, but to compensate for that, have to handle a high volume of cases, thus giving less attention to any individual client, or assigning most of the work on the case to a legal assistant rather than an attorney.  Others limit the number of cases they handle in order to provide more individualized attention to each client, and have the attorney him/herself handle most aspects of the case, but charge higher fees to compensate for the additional time spent on the case.  You can use these differences to your advantage based on the complexity of your case, to potentially save some money.

The most simple type of bankruptcy is one where you have a fairly low household income, only credit cards, personal loans, or medical bills, and no significant assets.  Such cases are pretty straightforward to prepare and file.  If you are in such a situation, you may decide to use a high-volume bankruptcy attorney that charges a low fees, as the risks are diminished that a mistake can be made due to insufficient attention to your case.  As the complexity of your case increases, attention to detail becomes more important.  Some of the factors that make a case more complex are: income above the median for your state; significant assets, like real estate, multiple vehicles, or investments; missed payments on a mortgage; car loans; significant tax refunds; payments made to relatives within a year before bankruptcy; property transfers within two years before bankruptcy; tax debt; student loan debt; debt secured by a guaranty or co-signed by a third person.  If your case falls in the more complex category, a mistake or failure to address an important issue can cost you thousands of dollars in lost assets or non-discharged liabilities.  It therefore becomes much more important to select an attorney who will personally do significant work on your case (as opposed to transferring the work to a legal assistant), and the additional costs are usually far outweighed by the ability to maximize the benefits of bankruptcy.

Specialized issues like student loans or taxes require special attention

Certain issues require special expertise.  The two common consumer issues that stand out in this regard are student loans and tax liabilities.  Most bankruptcy lawyers will tell you that they can handle these issues as part of your case, or will offer a generalized statement such as “student loans are generally not dischargeable” or “taxes must be older than three years to be dischargeable.”  However, such statements do not cover the complexity and the many nuances of these issues.  Evaluating and determining the proper treatment of student loans and tax debts requires careful analysis, and sometimes advance planning before the bankruptcy is filed.

For example, if a student loan is not treated correctly in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you may come out of bankruptcy owing a lot more in student loans than before the bankruptcy.  This is an unfortunate result of the bankruptcy automatic stay, combined with the law allowing capitalization of interest on federally-backed student loans.  On the other hand, despite the common pronouncement that student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, only certain types of student loans are not dischargeable.  If you loan does not fall into one of these categories, it can be discharged.  However, in order to determine this, the lawyer will often need to review and analyze numerous documents, and sometimes a lawsuit will be needed to enforce your right to a discharge.

Similar complexities exist when it comes to tax debt.  Whether or not a tax debt is dischargeable will often depend on the timing of the bankruptcy.  In some situations, a tax return may need to be filed before the bankruptcy in order to make the debt dischargeable.  In other situations, bankruptcy may need to be filed before a notice of tax lien is filed.  This, again, requires careful analysis of your situation in advance.

If your situation involves one of these unique issues, you will need an attorney who specialized in and regularly deals with such issues.  And the truth of the matter is, many bankruptcy lawyers do not develop sufficient expertise in such specialized issues.  The best way to determine which bankruptcy lawyer can best help you with one of these issues is to talk to several lawyers and ask each the same questions about your issue.  Generally speaking the more detailed and nuanced answers you get, the more likely it is that the lawyer really knows the ins and outs of the particular issue.  And if you get different answers from different lawyers, it is never a bad idea to follow up and ask for clarification.  It is worth mentioning that in some cases, the answers may be different because the law is truly unclear, and the lawyers may have different views of how a court would decide the matter.  If this is the case, a good lawyer will acknowledge the uncertainty of the law, and provide an explanation of his or her reasoning and conclusions.

Get a no-obligation case evaluation from a Mesa and Phoenix bankruptcy attorney

At Yusufov Law Firm, we have experience representing both individuals and businesses in bankruptcy cases under Chapter 7, Chapter 13, and Chapter 11.  We can provide a free no-obligation evaluation of your case, and advise you of your bankruptcy options.  You may contact us online, or call 480-788-0098 in Phoenix/Mesa, or 520-745-4429 if you are in the Tucson area.