The first meeting with a bankruptcy prospect is the best and hardest work I do. It’s probably the most important as well. I use it to figure out what the issues in the case are, what the client’s goals are, and to convey what I will need from the client to produce a successful outcome. Everything thereafter is just detail.
Before I get to debt limits, income levels, and priority claims, I want to explore Chapter 5. I want to know about what the client owns (§541), what he’s given away (§548), who he’s paid recently (§547), and what he may appear to own but doesn’t (§544). Where has he lived (§522) and what has he charged (§523).
I’ve found that working down a checklist of such questions face to face often deadens the conversation, such that the client stops really thinking about what I’m asking. To deal with that, I developed a little yes/no questionnaire that I ask the client to complete before we sit down. The answers to those questions help me pick those things that we ought to discuss more fully and to avoid those areas where there is no issue.
When BAPCPA first became effective, I had a vision of doing the means test while the client sat at my conference table. The more I know about the means test, the less likely I am to try to do that in public. I may try to gather information about the portion of the B-22 that uses the client’s actual expenses, but I am now resigned to telling the above median income client that I’ll need to spend some time after our meeting working out the means test issues.
What is striking about clients is the differences between what I learn at the first meeting and what subsequently appears on the worksheets that they prepare for us. Debts to family, tort claims, even operating businesses that were discussed in our meeting fail to find their way to the worksheets. I chalk this up to some sort of narrow view of debts as being only contract claims where the creditor sends you a monthly bill, or such.
Anyway, the take-away from this phenomenon is that you need to engage in a real conversation with the client about their financial life and its issues so that you have the counterpoint to what they tell you when they prepare paper. My worksheets reiterate that they must not exclude anything from the worksheets because they told us about the issues in some other forum, but they still do.
Your notes of the initial meeting have to highlight your findings. But more importantly, you have to revisit those notes when you review the petition before filing. To check the finished product against their worksheets is only half the job; checking it against the overview acquired at the first meeting makes sure that you’ve used everything you’ve learned from the client.
Image courtesy of RalphBijker