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5 'gotta-gets' in a bankruptcy lawyer

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2. A true bankruptcy 'expert'
Technically, any attorney can handle a bankruptcy, but in practice, only those who usually handle such cases are worth using, according to Melissa A. Herman, an Atlanta-based bankruptcy lawyer.

But clients shouldn't use the length of an attorney's career as an indicator of their expertise, Herman says. "The better question to ask would be: What percentage of the lawyer's practice constitutes bankruptcy and how many cases has the lawyer filed?"

At the same time, if a lawyer advertises expertise in numerous other areas, it's a safe bet that, at best, they are likely a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, Tuohey-Kay says.

"If a print ad lists 10 different practice areas that include everything from municipal work, general litigation and bankruptcy, I would keep looking," Tuohey-Kay says. "Find someone with a more limited practice."

3. Up to date on 2005 code changes
In 2005, Congress enacted the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. The legislation, designed to reign in millionaires and habitual filers from gaming the system, brought widespread reform to the bankruptcy industry. But the changes also make it harder for some debtors who meet a minimum threshold for income, which varies by state, to file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In some cases, the law requires them to repay their debts through a reorganization rather than receiving outright forgiveness. In addition, it also required those seeking bankruptcy protections to take a credit counseling class before filing.

While it is possible that the changes to the bankruptcy code may have little or no effect on some filers, it's nearly impossible for a person who is not a lawyer to tell beforehand how their case may differ because of the new legislation. But perhaps more troubling is the possibility that some "experienced" bankruptcy lawyers aren't current on the 2005 changes, according to Frank Terzo, an attorney who heads the bankruptcy practice for the Miami branch of the GrayRobinson law firm.

But how can you tell? Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. One piece of advice Terzo has is to simply ask how, if at all, your case is likely to be impacted by the 2005 changes to the bankruptcy code. If a lawyer can't answer the broad strokes of that question in the initial consultation, says Terzo, it's likely this is not the lawyer you want to represent you.

4. Don't get run through a mill
While you should always seek out the services of an experienced bankruptcy practitioner, one common pitfall can be falling into the hands of what lawyers call a bankruptcy mill, a firm that churns and burns cases with little regard for their client's specific needs. Such firms are notorious for shoddy legal work, unhappy clients and raising the suspicions of judges and trustees, who worry that mills, and their clients, are more likely to try and pull a fast one on creditors by abusing the process.

The trouble is that spotting a mill can be rather difficult for a person who is not a lawyer. But a good first step is to check with your local bar association for recommendations on attorneys who specialize in bankruptcy, says Terzo, who points out that most mills don't do the kind of lawyer-to-lawyer networking that is a customary feature of a local bar association.

Next: "... It's a safe bet you're dealing with a mill."
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