Bankruptcy Cases Not Taken

Robert Frost famously wrote about the road not taken; it made all the difference in the world, he concluded. 

So, too, the cases not taken are the ones that can keep you in business.

Running a bankruptcy law practice is hard work.  In addition to being a good lawyer, you also have to be a good business person.   To be successful, you need to control your case load and take on cases where the time spent will not exceed the payment made by the client for your services.

Pricing the case correctly is the first step, and that is something that requires you to track your time to be sure that you are balancing out with your hourly rates.  Too many new lawyers cut their fees to get business, but end up losing money or making little profit off the case.  If you don’t charge enough for cases, you will either lose money because you spend more time on it or you will not do a good job because you don’t put enough time into the case.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from the first lawyer I worked for in private practice, R. Michael Wells, Sr. an attorney in Winston-Salem, NC.  Mike has a general practice firm including bankruptcy, and he not only was an excellent lawyer but he knew how to run a law practice.

Mike told me “It isn’t the cases that you don’t take that you will regret. It is taking ones that you should not take that cause the most problems.”

The point is that one of the most important things any attorney must learn is to assess a case carefully and learn to walk away from some.

Cases that are beyond your experience and ability

There is no shame in telling a client that you don’t accept a case.  If I happen to think that a client has a particular issue where I know another lawyer in town has a better expertise than I do, I recommend that the client talk to the second lawyer.   A client will respect a lawyer who is honest and says they don’t think that they are the best lawyer for the job and you won’t be stuck in a case that is over your head.

Cases that require more time than you and your staff have

If you have a small office, don’t take on a case that will take all your time if you have other clients and cases to attend to.  Some cases should be handled in firms with more attorneys or staff.

Cases that are an emergency

You don’t have time to investigate and perform due diligence,  and you don’t  have adequate time to prepare.

It is never a good idea to take a complicated or time sensitive case when you don’t have enough time to get it done, or someone calls you the day before you are supposed to leave for a one week vacation.  You can count on something coming up that is going to cause a problem!

If a client calls the day before a foreclosure sale, and walks in without all the information or fees, you are going to be the one regretting the decision to jump in.

There is almost nothing worse than filing a bankruptcy case in a hurry, and then finding something like a non-exempt asset, years of tax returns that haven’t been filed, preferences to family members, fraudulent transfers, or other issue that will blow your case out of the water or cause your client grief.

In moot court, I learned never to ask a witness a question without knowing what the answer will be and it is good advice to head in filing cases too.  You should try not to ever file a case without knowing everything that will be disclosed in the petition, or disclosing to a client what the risk is.

For example, if I file a case before a tax return is prepared, I can’t tell the client if the refund is fully exempt or not.  At the very least, I warn the client that once filed, anything above $X will need to be turned over to the trustee so they are prepared.   This risk may be acceptable if waiting to get the answer would mean a foreclosure won’t be stopped, but the client needs to be able to understand the ramifications of rushing.  You don’t want to solve one problem, only to find a bigger one.

Cases for a client  who is unresponsive

Why should you care more about their case than your client does?  There is no way to help someone who doesn’t help themselves.  If a client is unresponsive, you will spend double time + getting the job done, and unless you charge extra you are going to see your profit disappear.

The ultimate case to avoid:  Cases with difficult, demanding client who is not willing to pay you a fair fee to cover your services

You will always lose money on these clients unless you are quick to fire them.   These will be people who think because they paid you some money, you need to do everything for them no matter how long it takes.  They will be rude to you and your staff.  They will think you are responsible for fixing all their problems. They will take little ownership of their case.  If they aren’t willing to pay you for the time it takes for the extra (and often unnecessary) time it will take to prepare their case, you will always lose money.

“Just say no” is something that we all need to remind ourselves from time to time.  It’s not as poetic as Robert Frost’s line, but it gets the job done.  Missing out on a few good cases will be much better than the headache of taking on even a single bad one.

Today’s guest author is Susanne Robicsek ,  Charlotte, North Carolina bankruptcy lawyer, colleague at BLN, and most importantly, good friend and fine lawyer.

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  • Bob Doig

    Amen, Susanne.  Well said.

  • Cathy

    I wish someone had told me this when I first started practice, when I took a number of truly awful cases “for the experience”. 

    The “experience” was genuinely dreadful.  It’s hard to say “no, I won’t help you”, but it’s vital.

  • mullison

    Really good advice. Just because a potential client is willing and able to pay your fee, you still need to think about whether or not you want to work with that person. It isn’t a little ironic that the lower your fee, the more demanding the client seems to be.

  • Tate Olivea

    Great point. When you’re starting out it’s so easy to take a case without evaluating it first.

    • CathyMoran

      And seldom is a low margin case or client “worth it for the experience”. Some experiences you are better off without….