GPSolo Magazine - September 2005
Consumer Bankruptcy Law
This issue of GPSolo inaugurates our new GP Mentor series designed to give law students and recent graduates a brief overview of various practice areas.
The universe called bankruptcy practice is composed of four different worlds. A few people work with the courts, or with the U.S. trustee, or as trustees themselves, or represent trustees. Also, quite a few people are involved with corporate reorganizations as members of big law firms or corporate legal departments, but if you are considering the question of how to get started, then that probably doesn’t describe you. That’s okay because most of the field, including myself, comprise what’s left: the world of bankruptcy-creditor’s rights and collections and the world of debtor-bankruptcy and consumer rights.
Occasionally, a lawyer can balance with a leg in two worlds at the same time. A few nimble individuals even manage to hop from one world to another with ease. However, it is the rare soul who can master the magic of practicing in all four worlds at the same time. Most of us end up concentrating the bulk of our practices in just one.
Regardless of whether you are a debtor lawyer (as I am) or a creditor lawyer, you will need to do some marketing to attract clients. If you represent creditors, you will need to do the rainmaking necessary to attract one or several major clients. If you represent debtors, you will need to invest in advertising: print, electronic, personal, etc. Your message can be distributed through a major media company or through individual contacts. Whatever approach you take, you will find that creditors and debtors alike are results oriented and price sensitive. Even among commercial interests there are clients to be found. Unfortunately, the market keeps asking for cheaper providers who do sloppier work. Although low price alone could enable you to get a start, you may not want your professional reputation to be associated with sloppy work. A quick buck made on a sloppy case now could scare away major dollars from a substantial client later. You have to decide what type of practice you want.
Bankruptcy is part of the federal court system, and all filings in federal court must be made electronically. So, you will need to have a phone line, a broadband connection, and a computer. You may need several computers linked to a central database. Also, to fully comply with the electronic filing requirements, you will need to have at least one copy of Adobe Acrobat, which can convert word processing documents into portable document format (PDF) prior to electronic transmission. If you will be filing debtors’ bankruptcy cases, you will also need a bankruptcy assembly program. Several popular brands are available.
After completing your first electronic bankruptcy filing, you will need to figure out how to organize and store all the electronic information that you will receive back from the bankruptcy clerk. Although specialized programs are available, I am able to handle all of the data by utilizing the programs that already come bundled with Microsoft Office XP. However, if you are now investing in new equipment and technology, you may want to do a little more to configure yourself to be the “paperless” office of tomorrow.
If you represent debtors, you will need to figure out how to keep the office staffed and open (and the phones answered) when you are at court. Creditor clients may insist on communicating only by e-mail, but debtors need human contact. Also, if you get into any complex cases, you will want to move beyond the flat fee and start billing by the hour. In bankruptcy, fees are subject to court approval; detailed time and billing notes are critical. Still, on the first day you open your doors, you can get by with handwritten or typed notes and put off the investment in timekeeping software until you get busy.
Most lawyers who gravitate toward debtor practice sincerely enjoy directly helping people. To survive in debtor practice, however, you will need to practice defensively. The new bankruptcy law relegates the “full heart and empty head” style of bankruptcy practice to the trash heap. In modern practice, the maintenance of a record that documents good client communication and diligent fact investigations are essential. The attorney sanction provisions of the new law encourage careful and conservative practice.
More than 20 years ago I started a law office armed only with a song in my heart and a book on my shelf. I started filing cases equipped with only a two-button phone that wouldn’t do anything but answer or dial and a typewriter that wouldn’t do anything but type. Today’s world is a much different and more complex place. If you can master its complexity, opportunities still abound.