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5 'gotta-gets' in a bankruptcy lawyer

Bankruptcy lawyers often are the beneficiaries of a tough economy, but their clients, many of whom know little about the process and have scant time to research it, are usually at a loss when it comes to seeking the help of an expert.

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With creditors closing in and desperation mounting, many people foolishly select a bankruptcy attorney based on price, an advertisement or, worst of all, no criteria at all. But selecting the right person to handle your bankruptcy can mean the difference between an eventual rebound and long-term pain.

If you're considering bankruptcy, here are five things to look for in a bankruptcy lawyer.


1. Get what you pay for
It's a simple and sad fact that the fee will be a key element for most people when it comes to hiring a bankruptcy attorney. After all, money is at the root of this particular problem. But with prices ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 depending on what part of the country you live in, it's important to make sure you're getting exactly what you need.

Fortunately, most bankruptcy lawyers use a relatively standard agreement for a basic Chapter 7, liquidation, or Chapter 13, personal reorganization. The flat fee should include consultation with the client and analysis of the financial situation; preparation of the bankruptcy petition; reviewing the petition with the client; attendance at the meeting of creditors, known as a 341 meeting; and follow-ups with creditors, such as taking action to halt any post-filing collection efforts, if necessary.

 In a Chapter 13 case, the fee should also include preparation of the reorganization plan and representation at the confirmation hearing.

According to Meaghan Tuohey-Kay, a bankruptcy lawyer in New Jersey, it's important to make sure these services are all clearly spelled out in the representation agreement.

In all likelihood, the flat fee won't cover eventualities like representing the debtor in an adversarial proceeding, such as when a creditor challenges the filing, and so it's important to ask what the attorney is likely to charge for any possible litigation that may arise out of the bankruptcy. While litigation occurs in only a small number of cases, it's a factor that all filers should consider before hiring an attorney as the costs can be high and can quickly spiral out of control.

Tuohey-Kay urges people not to choose bankruptcy lawyers based solely on price because courts often cap how much a lawyer can make on a given case, and those who routinely handle such matters tend to charge fees that cluster in the same general ballpark.

"If an attorney is offering representation that is drastically lower than other attorneys in the area, that should be a red flag that either the attorney really doesn't do much bankruptcy and/or will cut corners on your case," Tuohey-Kay warns. "However, most reputable attorneys will not give fees out over the phone without a complete consultation, so be wary of attorneys who just give a number over the phone without considering your specific situation."

 
 
Next: "Find someone with a more limited practice."
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