What are the Advantages to Working with a Bankruptcy Attorney rather than a Paralegal?

I have been a bankruptcy attorney since 1994. It has always been my practice to interview my clients myself, talk with them directly to get the information I need, and explain what documents I need. I prepare the necessary schedules and other pleadings based upon my notes and the documents they provide me. Once the paperwork is completed to my satisfaction, I meet with my clients to review it, make any changes necessary, and sign it. If any issues come up, I am in personal contact with my clients to do whatever necessary to resolve these concerns. I meet with the clients before the meeting with the Trustee (the “341” meeting), and again if a hearing is set before the judge. I have never used the services of a paralegal/legal assistant to take on any of these tasks.

Having been a paralegal myself for several years before going to law school, I realize the burden that such a staff person can take off the attorney’s back. Since a great deal of what an attorney has to give to her clients is her time, she can make more money if her time is spent generating more work instead of carrying out the tasks required for her current clients. However, I’ve also thought of the art of lawyering as being a kind of service “industry”. That is, I am here to provide a service to my clients, not merely to make money for myself. Money is certainly nice to have, but there is a great deal of pride and self-satisfaction for me when I’ve done the best job possible for my clients!

Early on, I realized that in addition to her time, what the attorney has to give to her clients is her expertise. And from my experience and observation, you as a client are likely not getting that expertise if it’s actually a paralegal that is doing your work.   The education that a paralegal receives is mainly procedural: it familiarizes the future paralegal with the procedures that attorneys go through in working their cases and the forms (pleadings, motions, schedules, etc.). It does not provide them with the depth of knowledge an attorney has regarding such matters as tax arrearages, security interests, liens, exemptions, etc., which may be used to a debtor’s advantage when completing the bankruptcy paperwork. I find that as I’m completing the schedules, I’m also thinking about the information I’m putting into them, and I recognize different ways of handling things that work in my client’s behalf. If I had merely given my notes and the documents to a paralegal to prepare the schedules, some of these items would quite probably have been lost. Sure, I would have reviewed the paperwork that the paralegal completed before having the clients in to review it, but it would not be quite the same as working through the information myself as I completed the schedules.

Also, in putting data into the schedules, I usually come up with a few more questions for my client — information that may protect them from having to surrender assets to the bankruptcy estate. I can then ask my client for further explanation or information that we will be prepared to provide to the trustee if necessary to protect the client’s interests. And if I realize that the trustee could have a legitimate interest or concern from what we have put in the schedules, I will make the client aware of that possibility early on so he/she will be prepared for it. Examples of such concerns usually arise from personal property, especially vehicles, the client has or is entitled to that cannot be protected by an exemption under Ohio law. [see some of my previous blogs for explanations regarding exemptions]

Further, when I and my client attend the meeting with the trustee (the “341” meeting), I know the case. It’s my own work. I don’t have to guess at what the paralegal has done. (And if I’ve goofed on something, it’s my own mistake and I will correct it — I won’t have anyone else to blame!)

My goal is to take my client through the bankruptcy process as smoothly and stress-free as possible. I do my best to explain the process so that the client understands it. If there are any obstacles that are going to have to be dealt with, I want to recognize them early on so that my clients and I can prepare to present them in the best light possible to the Trustee or Judge. Bankruptcy law and practice is complicated, but not to the extent you cannot understand what’s happening. This is your life, your finances, and your future — you should be aware of what’s going on as you go through the bankruptcy process!

In my mind, if a paralegal is taking your information, preparing the paperwork, and/or reviewing the paperwork with you when you’re there to sign it, you are simply not getting good representation from your attorney. This is proven over and over to me as I consult with potential clients that may have met or dealt with an attorney before they got to me. It may be that the attorney charges less (and well he should!) but again it is likely that what you pay for it what you get!   At least that’s so in this attorney’s opinion!