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13 tips to avoid hiring a bad bankruptcy attorney

What's worse than declaring bankruptcy? Hiring the wrong attorney for the job.

Handling bankruptcy filings has become a volume business for many lawyers, leaving some of them overworked and unable to attend to the details of all their cases. Bankruptcy mills -- storefront operations offering cut-rate services -- have set up shop in many places. All this activity means that individuals facing the ultimate financial decision too often find themselves with legal services that are inferior to what they expect or need.

"I've seen cases where the lawyer hired to represent the client didn't show up at the bankruptcy hearing," says Vince Slusher, an attorney with Godwin Gruber, a Dallas-branched law firm.

Nobody wants a no-show or incompetent attorney, especially when it's your financial future in the balance. That's why you need to do some research before hiring a bankruptcy lawyer.

Here are 13 tips to help you find the best attorney to handle your bankruptcy filing.

1. Don't dawdle.
"Contemplating hiring a bankruptcy attorney has all the allure of selecting your mortician," explains Ray R. Graves who served 20 years as a federal bankruptcy judge for the Eastern District of Michigan and who now works for BBK Ltd., a business consultancy headquartered in Southfield, Mich.

"People don't want to deal with it. They put it off beyond the last minute when the wolf is at the door."

Waiting until the last minute won't give you the time you need to find a good attorney. And it won't give a good attorney enough time to adequately prepare for your case.

2. Don't ask friends for referrals.
Unless your fellow churchgoer or golf buddy has gone through a bankruptcy, he or she won't have any leads for you. Asking will just waste time, says Graves. "This is a closed club," he explains.

3. Do ask for suggestions from legal professionals.
Consider who among your circle of acquaintances might know a bankruptcy lawyer. If you have a personal attorney, start there. Keep in mind, however, that bankruptcy law is a specialty, so if your lawyer offers to handle the case as part of your usual retainer, make sure he knows his way around bankruptcy court.

Also check local or state bar associations or professional organizations. Good places to ask include the Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, American Bankruptcy Institute and your local legal aid society. (Legal aid societies won't handle bankruptcies, but many keep a running list of bankruptcy attorneys.)

4. Investigate certifications.
Attorneys who are certified by the American Bankruptcy Institute have had to meet additional standards. See if your prospective attorney has this added training.

5. Spend a day at bankruptcy court.
Observing the attorneys in action can give you an idea of the lawyer you want representing you. At the court you also can find out which locals specialize in this form of law. And you can get a chance to talk to the debtors and can ask them whether they felt their lawyers did a good job, says Rick Mitchell, partner with Iseman, Cunningham, Riester & Hyde, LLP, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

 
 
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