When you hire a bankruptcy lawyer, you probably assume that lawyer or another
attorney from that lawyer’s firm will be with you when you “go
to court.” (The technical name for the court hearing is the “341
meeting of creditors.”) But depending on what lawyer you hire, you
might be wrong. A few clues that you should look for to see if your lawyer
will actually be with you all the way through the case:
- Is your lawyer physically located in the same area where the courthouse
is located? If not, the lawyer will probably try to find a local attorney
who knows little or nothing about your case to stand in for them.
- Have you ever met face-to-face with your lawyer? If you never have a face-to-face
meeting with your lawyer, that is an indication that the lawyer may not
be planning to go to court with you.
- Does your lawyer do everything by a website, e-mail or phone? This is another
indication that the lawyer might not be in the area and therefore, might
not personally attend your hearing.
- Hire a local lawyer. If you hire a local lawyer, there is a much better
chance that the lawyer will appear with you in court.
- Lastly, you should ask your lawyer if they will be personally present with
you at the 341 meeting. Now, there are occasional scheduling issues which
might prevent a lawyer from personally appearing at the 341. What you
want to avoid is the situation where a lawyer regularly relies on outside
counsel to handle court appearances.
And there is also a significant risk to the lawyers who routinely hire
outside counsel to attend bankruptcy court hearings. In a recent case
out of Michigan, the court examined one of these arrangements. The bankruptcy lawyer did not appear with the client at the court hearing
(which was apparently the lawyer’s regular practice) and paid a
local attorney (not a member of the bankruptcy lawyer’s firm) $100
to attend instead. This payment was not disclosed to the court. The court
ordered that the bankruptcy lawyer refund $500 to the client for substandard
legal representation and as a sanction for failing to make the full disclosures
required by bankruptcy law. The court described the problem as follows:
More important than this lapse, however, is the fact that [bankruptcy lawyer]
left the Debtor to attend her first meeting of creditors, the only hearing
the Debtor was required to attend throughout the course of her case, with
an attorney she did not know or retain. Although the Debtor offered no
specific criticism of [appearance attorney], the court infers she was
not pleased with the last-minute substitution, and that she believed she
did not get the full benefit of her bargain with [bankruptcy lawyer].
Had the Debtor wanted to retain [appearance attorney], she could have
done so; instead, she chose [bankruptcy lawyer].
So, to sum up, there are many quality bankruptcy attorneys in this local
area. Choose one of them over someone out of the area. And feel free to
ask your attorney if they or someone from their firm will be personally
appearing with you at the meeting of creditors.