Adding bankruptcy law to your practice can help you keep your law firm afloat during these uncertain economic times, while allowing you to connect with more clients in need. Consumer bankruptcy is one area where you can make big impacts.
Updates to laws, regulations, and procedures continue to change how consumer bankruptcy cases are handled. Because the bankruptcy law profession is always changing, it’s important to learn from the experts when starting your practice.
NextChapter spoke to bankruptcy attorney Paul Kuzmickas who practiced bankruptcy law for many years and knows the ins and outs of this area of law. Continue reading for his insight and advice for new bankruptcy attorneys.
Q: What’s your favorite part about practicing bankruptcy law?
A: The best part is seeing the real effect you can have on people’s lives. People come to us scared, nervous, and filled with doubt. They often leave surprised, happy, and with tears of joy when they realize you really have helped them improve their lives for the better.
Q: What are the hardest parts of practicing bankruptcy law?
A: One of the hardest parts is seeing clients who return a couple years after their case has closed and are back in financial trouble. As attorneys, we give advice, tips, and tricks on how to change how they handle their money, credit, and finances. Many clients listen and follow the advice to have a more successful future, but there are some who unfortunately fall back into the same pattern and end up back in financial trouble. That is hard to see.
Q: What hiccups should a new bankruptcy practitioner expect?
A: One of the biggest is realizing that clients, at times, can really need a lot of hand holding to get their documents turned in. When filing bankruptcy, there are a lot of documents a client must provide to their attorney, and many of them wait, stall, forget, or are just surprisingly unmotivated to get the required items to you. Help me help you, right!?!?
Q: If you had to give advice to a new bankruptcy practitioner, what would you say?
A: I would go to court a couple times, sit in the back, and watch how the hearings go. I would introduce myself to the trustee (Chapter 7 or 13, for example), and ask if you can sit in on some of their 341 Meeting of Creditors hearings once or twice. These really can show you a lot about what goes well and wrong in this area of the law. Lastly, I would introduce myself to a couple creditor attorneys and ask them and the trustees who some of the most prepared bankruptcy debtors’ attorneys are. As all documents are electronic and public record, you can look up their cases, see what they do, when and how they do it, and mimic all their good traits. Read local requirements and do your homework on it all so you are prepared.
Q: What is the initial consultation like? What do you discuss with the client? Do you collect any documents?
A: Active listening is important. I really sit back and let them tell their story. I give empathy for the situation they are in. I then go through some tailored questions to narrow down if bankruptcy is right for them, and, if so, which chapter. I utilize NextChapter during my initial consultation so that when it is time to prepare the petition, I have a good percentage of it already prepared. I usually do not collect documents at the initial consult, unless they brought some with them. But after the consult, I provide them with a document checklist for what they need to turn in to me.
Q: How do you make sure you get all of the documents and information from your client?
A: Getting them can be hard, as referenced earlier. I have a document checklist created in NextChapter to use for every case, and then I add in some and tailor it if different cases need different things. The checklist is a huge timesaver as I can check off what I have and leave open what is still needed. Any staff, receptionist, paralegal, or attorney can quickly see what is still needed if the client ever calls and asks what they still need to get in. At times I print it, screen shot it, or whatever is needed to give the client the updated list.
Q: What is preparing the bankruptcy petition like? Is it a difficult process? Or is it pretty straightforward?
A: It used to be pretty confusing, and still can be depending on if you are filling the forms out yourself or what software you are using to prepare them. I use NextChapter and it is very intuitive and easy. It goes step by step through normal, common sense questions, such as do they have a house, a car, a bank account, etc. It can be straightforward when you use a straightforward software to guide you. It is also helpful when you can use a debtor portal program, like MyChapter, where the clients themselves can prepare some of it for you.
Q: How do you file the bankruptcy petition? How do you make sure you're filing it correctly per your district's requirements?
A: I file it with my software. One-click filing makes things so much easier than in the past. I like how NextChapter lays it out and you can see what is being included and what order they are in, and you can have extra documents uploaded with it, like pay advices. The requirement part goes back to the earlier comments about being prepared and doing your homework on your jurisdiction. When you know a good attorney or two, see what they file with a petition, what they file after, what they file on day one or the first week, etc. This legwork can really give you a head start to make sure you file the petition correctly.
Q: What is an attorney's role in the 341 Hearing? What is the court process like for bankruptcy clients?
A: The attorney’s role is to have your client well-prepared, calm their nerves, and ensure the trustee has everything they need before the hearing date, during it, and after. You want to represent yourself, your firm, and your client well.
The process can be nerve wracking for your clients, so you want them ready. Give them a list of sample questions and test run some of the questions with them ahead of time. Make sure they know where to park, how long it will take to get there, and how early to arrive. I have my clients arrive early and we run through questions being asked again to make sure they feel comfortable. The trustees are just there to confirm some information and hear truthful answers, so I ensure my clients provide everything openly and honestly.
Q: Does using the right software make a difference in the bankruptcy process (preparing, managing, and filing the case)?
A: It makes all the difference! I have used at least three different software programs and even had some done manually. A good software, like NextChapter, can make it not only easier and more user friendly, but way more efficient. My paralegals love the time savings for each case, which allows them to do more in a day, or do some quicker so that they can spend more time on other things. We use it to manage our calendar, documents, tasks, and even texting our clients. I love how it is an all-in-one program that helps make my life, and the lives of my paralegal and clients, much better!
There you have it, an inside look into practicing bankruptcy law from a consumer bankruptcy attorney. If you're ready to get started, continue your education with the Bankruptcy Week Summit and sign up for NextChapter's legal software for the new bankruptcy attorney.