Maximizing the Initial Client Interview

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.

Client as Onion

Listening Skills for the Lawyer

Playing Connect the Dots

Image courtesy of RalphBijker

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  • LegalSecy

    Cathy, this is great advice.

    For attorneys who have good support staff (and I realize that many solo practitioners do not have that luxury) it is particularly important to make certain that your clients disclose this info to you first, and not to the support staff AFTER you’ve already had that initial consultation with the client and sketched out the case:

    —– quote —–
    […] 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).
    —– end quote ——

    Its not that well trained support staff can’t discover this kind of undisclosed info — often we can just from clues and bread crumb trails in the documents the client has given us.

    But usually you will have left some instructions and notes about the general shape of the bankruptcy case for support staff who may assist with collecting documents from the clients, preparing the bankruptcy schedules, Means Test, etc., for your review.

    If you laid out a case outline for the support staff who will be assisting with preparing the case and the support staff then discover some of these potential game changers that the client forgot to mention to you, then the client may need to meet with you again, you may need to re-outline the case for the support staff who are preparing it, and the support staff may need to make substantial changes to what has already been prepared (such as re-doing the Means Test and changing the case from a Ch 7 filing to a Ch 13 filing). It can actually double the amount of time that both you and your staff wind up spending on the case.

    This is not only frustrating to the client (and to you and to the staff) but it is also definitely Not Good for your office’s Bottom Line!

  • Great advice. Asking a question several ways helps. It is like peeling away at an onion.

  • In my opinion you probably did an awesome work outlining it. Last of all I just uncovered what I’ve been seeking for. A vital thing you possess this XXX information. 

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  • Well, it is up to you on how are you going to approach someone who’s about to file bankruptcy. I must say that this is a very difficult job.

    • Cathy Moran, Esq.

      So much is balancing what you see and hear in the personality before you against what you need to learn and to convey in order to make the case successful. There is a huge element of people skills involved here that isn’t obvious from the outside of the profession.