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5 'gotta-gets' in a bankruptcy lawyer

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"The ranks of the local bar association are typically filled with lawyers who specialize in business bankruptcy, but there are usually more than a few lawyers who do personal work, and they tend to be the smarter, up-and-coming ones in that field," Terzo says.

But no matter where you go initially to find an attorney, Terzo believes the client should always be on the lookout for certain red flags that could indicate a bankruptcy mill.

"If you don't meet an actual lawyer in the initial consultation, that's a big warning sign," Terzo explains. Terzo adds that most mills use paralegals to do intake and prepare key documents for filing. "At some mills, the first time you meet your lawyer is at the meeting of creditors; that's a really bad sign," he says.

Another good way to spot a mill is by asking how many cases an attorney handles at a given time. According to attorney Toby Bartholow of Dallas, if a lawyer handles more than 30 bankruptcies per month, it's a safe bet you're dealing with a mill.

A high-volume practice is also likely to be characterized by quick, superficial initial consultations, according to Tuohey-Kay, who points out that even uncomplicated cases require at least an hour for the initial consultation so that the lawyer can familiarize himself with the client's income over the previous six months and the present market value of their assets.

Comfortable relationship
It may sound obvious, but picking a lawyer who you aren't comfortable with, even if the attorney is well qualified and competitive on price, is a recipe for disaster. Too often, people overlook the interpersonal factors that govern the lawyer/client relationship, according to Bartholow.

"If they don't have a good feel for their relationship with the attorney, they should go elsewhere and not be shy about it," Bartholow says. "Filing a bankruptcy is an emotional matter for most people, and it's important that they feel right about what they are doing and who is doing it for them."

While that may mean walking away from an affordable, trustworthy and qualified bankruptcy lawyer, Bartholow insists that the prospective client won't get nearly as much as they should from their attorney if they don't feel comfortable. That means that the preparation and research that goes into finding a good bankruptcy attorney only lays the groundwork for a more difficult choice that requires the client to trust their instincts when it comes to assessing the character of their prospective lawyer. For that, there are no guarantees, but clients who do their homework before they hire a bankruptcy attorney can be reasonably certain that they've found a solid advocate.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: March 13, 2009
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