If you are dealing with credit problems, the type of lawyer you want will depend on which side of the fence you're on:
- If you're a consumer with credit problems, you may be at the point where you will probably want a lawyer who specializes as debtor's counsel in bankruptcy matters
- If you have a business with credit problems, you may not be at the point of bankruptcy. Your first stop should probably be with a business lawyer who has expertise in representing businesses similar to your operation. This lawyer could initially assess your problems and try to come up with a game plan to resolve them. If this lawyer is not the person to solve your problems, he or she may then refer you on to a bankruptcy lawyer, if necessary.
- If you're a creditor collecting a consumer debt, you may want to go straight to a lawyer who specializes in collection matters. You should also look at simply turning your accounts over to a collection agency, which will usually have its own lawyer to pursue appropriate legal action.
- If you're a creditor collecting a business debt, a business lawyer who specializes as creditor's counsel may be your best bet
You'll need to do some initial screening of your list of lawyers to whittle it down to three or four prospective candidates.
Look at biographical information, including whatever you can find on Web sites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area you need? Do they have any information on their Web sites that is helpful to you?
Lawyers who represent creditors on collection matters usually don't represent consumers with problems in this area. So if you have debt problems, look at the profile for the lawyer and his or her firm to see whom they primarily represent. If you can't tell, call the lawyer's office and find out.
Use search engines to surf the Internet. Can you find any articles, FAQ's or other informational pieces the lawyer has done that give you a level of comfort? Cross-check your references by doing searches using key words such as "collection attorneys" or "bankruptcy attorneys."
Ask other people if they've heard of the attorneys and what they think about them.
Contact your state bar association or visit their Web site to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.
Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
Check out the online archives of your local newspaper. Has there been any publicity about the lawyer or the cases that he or she has handled?
Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English?
You shouldn't necessarily cross a lawyer off your list just because he or she didn't have the time to meet with you on short notice. Good lawyers in this area usually have high-volume practices. Sometimes this is by necessity, because people with credit problems are usually not in the position to pay a lot in attorneys' fees, so lawyers need the high volume to make ends meet.
As a result, they may be so busy that they will not be able to spend a lot of time responding to inquiries from prospective clients. You should also anticipate that whomever you hire might have to delegate a lot of responsibility to his or her staff.
Unless there are special circumstances, you'll want to hire a lawyer with a local office.
Before you hire a lawyer, ask for references. You want to talk to people who could comment on the lawyer's skills and trustworthiness. Ask if it is okay to talk to some of the lawyer's representative clients. Get a reference from a bank and from other lawyers. Bankruptcy lawyers should also be able to give you the names of other attorneys who have worked with them.
Ask about conflicts of interest. Does the lawyer represent any opposing parties? If you are filing bankruptcy, for example, does the lawyer represent any of your creditors?
Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials that the firm may have. Crosscheck these materials against your other sources and references.
Is this a one-time problem or a recurring one? For people filing bankruptcy, hiring debtor's counsel will hopefully be a one-time experience. However, if you have a business routinely dealing with customers filing bankruptcy, you should think about retaining a lawyer or a law firm having areas of expertise that cover all of your anticipated business needs.
Look to see if a lawyer is affiliated with associations that cater to your legal issues. For example, a prominent association for lawyers specializing in representing consumers with credit problems is the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (www.nacba.com). Prominent organizations representing creditors on collection matters include the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys (www.narca.org) and The Commercial Law League of America (www.clla.org).
A debtor can usually hire a lawyer for a flat fee for a simple bankruptcy. Short of filing a bankruptcy, though, debtor's counsel will likely charge by the hour. (If you're a consumer with credit problems, you probably don't have the money to pay a lawyer by the hour. This is one reason why you may need to consider filing bankruptcy if your problems are so pressing that you need to see an attorney.) The rates tend to be competitive, so you might want to shop around if you're looking to file bankruptcy.
If you're a creditor turning an account over to collection, the collection agency will usually charge you on a sliding scale, based on a percentage of whatever is collected. The cost of their lawyer will usually be included in the collection fee. Otherwise, creditor's counsel usually charges by the hour.