Forgive us our debts…and give us discounted lawyer fees, too.

ASK LEON 

Bankruptcy expert Leon Bayer answers real-life questions.

Dear Leon,

I want to file bankruptcy. My case is simple. I’m in my 20’s, I make next to nothing, and I own next to nothing. My debts are less than $15,000 on mostly old credit cards that I got when I was young and stupid. I can’t afford a lawyer. What are the odds of a successful bankruptcy if I file on my own without a lawyer?

Matthew

Dear Matthew,

You can file on your own and may very well get a discharge. But before you go this route, you should carefully consider a few things:

  • You might make a mistake in your case that will affect your bottom line. Worse, you might not find out about the mistake until years later.
  • You probably can afford a lawyer.

Bankruptcy Mistakes That Haunt You Later

If you represent yourself and get a discharge, you may think you’ve been successful. A successful bankruptcy case means: you discharged all of the debts that you were allowed to get rid of in bankruptcy, you kept all of the assets that you were allowed to keep, and creditors are no longer popping up to bother you. (Learn more about what the bankruptcy discharge is.)

Unfortunately, I hear from lots of people who completed a bankruptcy on their own, but then later had problems that related back to the old case, such as:

  • debt collectors pounding them to collect on an old debt that they forgot to list in the bankruptcy (learn more about what happens if you forget to list a debt in bankruptcy), or
  • courts throwing out a car accident case because they failed to list the case correctly in the bankruptcy.

Getting a lawyer can also help if you need credit in the future. An experienced lawyer can usually point out some strategies that will help you get new credit without waiting ten years for the bankruptcy to drop off your credit report.

How to Get a Lawyer to Discount the Fees

Here’s your real concern: You want a lawyer but you think you can’t afford one. This means you are in the same boat as most bankruptcy clients.

Here’s how to get a lawyer that you can afford. And I mean a quality, top-notch, experienced bankruptcy lawyer.

First, figure out what you think is a reasonable lawyer fee based on your personal finances. Whatever that amount is, put it in your pocket, and go see some bankruptcy lawyers for a free consultation. (Read Nolo’s tips on finding a bankruptcy attorney.) Don’t do this over the phone — lawyers don’t want to spend time on the phone with shoppers. You’ve got to do it in person.

During the consultation, the lawyer will quote you a fee. Then, tell the lawyer what you can afford. Be humble. Grovel a little bit. Tell the lawyer you are truly sorry that you can’t pay more, and that you know the lawyer is worth every bit of the quoted fee. But, as the lawyer can see, you are truly dead broke. Tell the lawyer that if the fee you can afford is agreeable, you are ready to pay it right now. If your case is as simple as you think it is, most lawyers will agree to your suggested fee.

-Leon

Leon Bayer is a Los Angeles bankruptcy attorney.  He is a partner at Bayer, Wishman & Leotta, a California law firm specializing in bankruptcy.  The opinions and advice in this blog post are from Mr. Bayer alone, and should not be attributed to Nolo.  By answering a question on this blog, Mr. Bayer does not become your lawyer.

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