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.