Bankruptcy Lawyer Must Exploit First Meeting with Client

The success of a bankruptcy case is frequently determined at the first meeting between client and lawyer.

The information that is exchanged and the confidence that is built at that  encounter shapes the client’s expectations, the choice of chapter, the timing of the filing and much more.  So I cringe when I hear stories about the first, frequently “free”, consultation between prospective debtor and bankruptcy lawyer.

The free consultation that one of my clients reported consisted of a 20 minute sales pitch from the lawyer.  The client was asked to bring no information and apparently couldn’t get a word into the “consultation” edgewise.  Information flowed in only one direction;  at the end of the consultation, the lawyer was no better informed about the client’s situation than at the beginning.

Another client reported on a consultation in which the entire time was spent with the lawyer starting to fill in the bankruptcy forms:  no discussion of whether this couple planning divorce should file together, none explaining the non obvious kinds of disclosure required by a bankruptcy filing, no relationship building that would foster inquiry or disclosure.  Just charge ahead to filing.

Then one of my bankruptcy lawyer friends opens the conversation with a gambit intended to get the client to commit to filing in advance of gathering or conveying any information about the client’s situation.

While my experience is that very few people make an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer who don’t need to file a case, if we are going to be seen as sources of knowledge and know how, we don’t structure our all important first impression to be one of sales rather than professionalism.

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  • Excellent article, Cathy.

    You’re right — although very few people who seek out a meeting with a bankruptcy lawyer who don’t ultimately file a bankruptcy case, my approach is “weird”: I challenge the assumption to begin with by telling my prospective clients that:

    “I am a very different kind of bankruptcy lawyer. I would rather find a way for you to NOT file bankruptcy, if that makes legal and financial sense for you.”

    “If not, then at least you know that you really had no other choice.”

    Then I continue by asking “So tell me — what is bringing you here to see me today?”

    Nice series of posts – I plan to forward them on to a friend who’s jumping into the consumer bankruptcy field.

  • John Thompson

    Cathy:

    I am very excited to have stumbled upon your blog. As a young attorney just hanging out my shingle this is an excellent resource!

  • Thanks for the article and your new site for educating new bankruptcy lawyers. I’ve seen and appreciated your postings on the NACBA listserv as I’ve asked my newbie questions.

    About this article, whatever success with (the few) clients I’ve had has been because I first and foremost listen to them and then try to ask the right questions to give them the best advice I can. I never try to sell them anything and I think they notice and appreciate it.

    I’m looking forward to what the future brings here at bankruptcymastery.com.

  • Cathy, What you say is so true but I haven’t always followed your advice.

    I readily admit that when I was just starting my consumer bankruptcy practice and was in desperate need of cash to pay my overhead and living expenses, my inclination was to sign up anyone who found my office with cash in hand wanting to file bankruptcy.

    Back then, my first concern was taking care of myself and not my client. Don’t get me wrong. I always represented my clients competently. However, I definitely wasn’t discouraging anyone from filing bankruptcy any I wasn’t declining representation unless a case was obviously just too complex for me at the time.

    Financial pressures still arise but now that I have a few more years experience as a consumer bankruptcy lawyer, I can honestly say that like you I now spend considerable time with all potential clients analyzing their specific situation and all possible options, both non-bankruptcy and bankruptcy, so that they can make an informed decision on what ultimately will be in their best interest. Often the best option is not bankruptcy, at least for the time being.

    It’s obvious that potential clients really appreciate the type of approach advocated by both you and my good friend and fellow Tulsan Ben Callicoat who left his reply above. As an example, I’ve had potential clients whom I advised not to file bankruptcy later refer others to me because they trusted me since I put their interests before my own.

    So on many fronts it’s easy to see why the bankruptcy counselor approach, as compared to the bankruptcy salesman approach, is the right way to go. Whether it’s because you’re treating others as you would want to be treated ala the Golden Rule. Or because it just makes good business sense as it builds goodwill and positive public relations. And then of course there’s those professional rules of conduct with which we must comply.

    I look forward to following your insights here at Bankruptcy Mastery.

  • Cathy, you are right on with this post.

    What’s happening here it seems to me is because most of these cases are “fixed fee” some practitioners have translated in their minds that this means quick, quick, quick because we been mostly bread on the hourly billing approach.

    Perhaps the other problem is in the consumer bankruptcy arena many are left to compete solely on price and thus are left with a squeezed down value proposition.

    I’ve found that it is very difficult to have an initial consult in less than 45 minutes to 1 hour. Not impossible, just very difficult. Its so much better to communicate your “value” to the prospective client by listening actively, then giving what they came for “advice.”

    Again, great post. Keep em coming.

    • Competing on price struck a chord, since I think that bankruptcy lawyers have for years allowed their pricing structure to reinforce the community’s view that what they do is trivial. Nuts! Our job is often as complicated as a Chapter 11 and we have to deal with real, live people too.

      But the “lawyer as counselor” is going to result in a far more effective client-as-a-source-of-referrals.
      Can’t believe that clients will crow about their lawyer who was cheaper than any other. It’s the lawyer who cared, who listened, who got a good result, and was mindful of how stressful it was that will reap the kudos.

      Cathy

  • Congratulations Cathy on your new website. Your articles are always informative and a pleasure to read. Keep up the excellent work!

  • Legal Secy

    Cathy, although I am not an attorney I always enjoy reading your perls of bankruptcy wisdom.

    To add to your point in this article: For those attorneys who have support staff, please share your vision regarding a prospective client’s first visit with your support staff.

    Often the prospective client will have had multiple contacts with your support staff before he or she ever meets with you, the attorney, i.e.:

    – calling to schedule the appointment
    – perhaps a reminder call reminding the client of the scheduled appointment
    – perhaps an anxious call or two from the client to the office staff asking what information to bring with them for the first appointment … or asking whether the client can bring a friend or family member for moral support (or whether the office staff can provide child care while the client is meeting with you…)
    – possibly a somewhat frantic call at some point asking whether [whatever the most recent bill collector told them] (e.g., “You can’t file bankruptcy on medical bills any more,” or “If you file bankruptcy you’ll lose everything you own”, etc.) is really true
    – and of course check-in when the client arrives for the appointment, getting accurate contact info and making certain that the client receives and completes whatever forms you want your clients to fill out prior to their appointment

    As good consumers, your prospective clients should be evaluating your firm’s ability to meet their needs too, and (for better or for worse) a good part of that impression will be made by your support staff before you even meet with the client.

    The more info you share with your support staff about your own beliefs, priorities, principles, etc., the more your support staff can actually – well – “support” not only your technical needs but also the prefessional tone that you set.

    If you don’t remember to talk to your support staff about where your “head is at” about these issues, your support staff may “guess” (or may assume that your principles and priorities are the same as those of another attorney they once worked for at another firm) and might accidentally undermine what you mean to be conveying if they “guess wrong.”

    Make sure to include your support staff as partners in executing the mission of your practice.

  • Cathy Moran, Esq.

    As usual, Legal Secretary, a friend from early days on Laywers.com bankruptcy boards, is right on. The staff is a reflection of the firm. A client of mine identified his receptionist as the Director of First Impressions.

    First impressions are powerful. Lots of my clients tell me that they ended up in my office because they were treated well and warmly on the phone.

    The more your staff can mirror your approach to clients, the stronger the message that the client is in good hands.

  • Bob Coffey

    My friend Ben Callicoat sent me this article. I appreciate the sentiments, with which I am in complete agreement. If you have a mailing list to whom you send missives of this sort, please include me on it.

    Thanks,
    Bob Coffey

  • Cathy Moran, Esq.

    Has anyone seen this post on the Five Worst Initial Consultation Mistakes (http://divorcediscourse.com/2010/01/25/5-worst-initial-consultation-mistakes/)? Does it resonate with you?

  • Law School

    I really liked your blog!

  • Thanks for taking the time to set up this website. I’ll post links to it on the listserves I’m on. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed bankruptcy work so much is that the attorneys help each other.

    I do free consultations too but not only to get a better understanding of the clients situation and make sure it is a case I’m willing and capable of handling but to see how the client and I get along personality wise. Taking an hour at the beginning to talk and get to know each other lets your client feel more comfortable with the hard advice you may need to give later. I’ve had to decline several cases because I felt bankruptcy wasn’t the best option but those clients appreciated that honesty enough to refer friends and family to me later.

  • Ed

    Been practicing bankruptcy law for 15 years. Idiots who don’t listen to clients and have a clear understanding of the client’s goal are headed to a serious bar complaint.

    • CathyMoran

      Not only have to listen, but to probe. They leave clues, that you have to follow up.