Bankruptcy clients are often surprised to find out how personal their relationship with their bankruptcy attorney becomes over the course of the representation. While the end goal of bankruptcy is to receive a discharge of debt, the journey to that goal requires full disclosure on the part of the client, and some empathy on the part of the attorney.
When Bankruptcy Intersects With Life
While life is about much more than money, there is no doubt that financial difficulties place stress on the individual and almost inevitably on all members of the family. When an individual or a married couple is considering bankruptcy, it typically means they are weather-worn and overwhelmed by debt. With threats from creditors and sleepless nights imagining worst-case scenarios, it’s an emotional time.
The practice of bankruptcy law seems to attract the type of attorney who wants to be part of the solution and takes satisfaction in forging strong relationships with clients. All of the bankruptcy attorneys I know in Charlotte, North Carolina, while being capable attorneys, have a gentle side to their personality; one that exudes care for the struggles others are going through. It’s no surprise then that a strong relationship is built between the attorney and the client as they work together toward a successful bankruptcy filing.
Disclosure and Trust
Clients in bankruptcy are asked to disclose a great deal of information. Not only the obvious, like the sale or transfer or an asset, or income, but also the less obvious—inconsistent support or help received from a friend or loved one, loans owed to family friends, even particular types of expenditures in the months preceding the filing. It can feel like an invasion of privacy, but the powerful relief the bankruptcy code offers is given in exchange for this openness by the client.
It’s no wonder a client may feel vulnerable during the process. This vulnerability is compensated for when the client decides they trust their attorney. After all, if the attorney doesn’t know about a particular financial fact, he or she can’t take steps to properly disclose it and strategize with the client to insure it doesn’t negatively affect the bankruptcy filing.
Why the Attorney Matters
There are many capable attorneys who will competently assist you in achieving the same results. What I encourage anyone considering bankruptcy to do is to find an attorney who is also interested in you personally, and has a desire to understand your personal and professional goals beyond filing the bankruptcy. Someone who can share your anxiety regarding bankruptcy, and who can also embrace your vision for your future financial life.
It is an oversight to pretend there is not an emotional side to filing bankruptcy. An attorney who embraces the role of counselor at law as it relates to understanding a client’s frustrations, fears and uncertainty will better serve the client overall, and will ultimately more effectively represent the client in the filing of the bankruptcy. Bankruptcy clients should be encouraged to expect as much from the experience.
Practical Advice for Those Considering a Bankruptcy Attorney
Beyond some basic tips like paying attention to how long an attorney or law firm takes to return your calls, here are a few things to consider when choosing a bankruptcy attorney:
How much access will you have to the attorney during the process? If the attorney is already talking to you about the assistant you will be working with during the filing process, don’t be afraid to ask how easily you will be able to get in touch with the attorney if you have a question for them.
Ask the attorney a challenging question or two. You’re allowed to do this. I’ve had clients ask me what is the biggest challenge of my job. I’ve been asked if I’ve ever personally filed bankruptcy. The questions caught me off guard, and I am sure my answers gave my clients some insight as to what it will be like to work with me. I did not take the questions personally and I was impressed that the client thought to ask them.
Listen to the way in which the attorney speaks. Is the focus on how important it is for you to follow their firm’s rules, or is the focus on the care and concern they are going to show you along the way to filing? Is their tone harsh and do they sound rushed on each call, or do they ask you open-ended questions and give you time to give complete answers, and then respond thoughtfully. These are indicators of what it will be like to work with them.
For attorneys, it’s always good to be reminded that we serve the client. Additionally, when I’ve asked attorneys in continuing legal education classes I have taught what the best part of their job is, the answer is almost universally “relationships with clients.” Here are a few things attorneys might consider when preparing to interact with a client:
Ask yourself what you can do in this moment to communicate care. Each phone call or email typically addresses a substantive matter at hand. It may be regarding a vehicle, or a bankruptcy exemption. But there is always an opportunity to communicate care on a personal level, if we look for a way to create it.
Consider what your client may be going through right now. Attorneys, like everyone else, live busy work lives. Slowing down to ask yourself what the client might be experiencing will immediately inspire empathy. Make a choice to communicate that empathy by opening a discussion with the client about how they are managing stress and anxiety since the last time you talked.
Keep in touch with clients. Your representation may end with the discharge in bankruptcy, but there is no reason you cannot continue a meaningful relationship with clients. It’s an often overlooked aspect of building a successful practice. Come up with a system for checking in with clients periodically over time. After all, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to celebrate how well they are doing both financially and personally, on the heels of the bankruptcy.
Quite often, after the 341 meeting of the creditors in Charlotte, NC, you can see bankruptcy attorneys being given hugs by their clients, in the hallway outside the meeting room. That’s all I’ve ever needed to see, to fully understand how important and rewarding a strong relationship with a bankruptcy client is to my practice.
Christopher Layton is a bankruptcy and personal injury attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also creates and delivers content for The Likeable Lawyer, a professional Continuing Legal Education company