Get Better Or Get Out

Become better bankruptcy attorney or get outI spent a painful day in court watching two contested Chapter 13 confirmation calendars. 

It wasn’t just my fanny that hurt by the end of the day, it was my head.  Actually, I was sick to my stomach.

The number of Chapter 13 cases dismissed because the lawyer had apparently done nothing, done it late, or done it wrong was nauseating.

The parade of lame excuses for inaction went on and on.  In the end, the amount of pain inflicted on the unsuspecting clients by bumblers with a law license was frightful.

When I began this site, as well as the attendant training programs for bankruptcy lawyers, I did so because I felt a need to pass on what I know about consumer bankruptcy practice.  It’s a commercial venture, but one born out of frustration with the level of incompetence I was seeing on a daily basis.

That incompetence used to show up at the 341 meeting.  Now it shows up in the Chapter 13 confirmation process.  Farther along the path, but just as disgusting.

So, my message is blunt:  get better or get out.

What stoked my ire was the efforts of this trustee and the two judges conducting yesterday’s calendar  over the recent past to implement a new, streamlined procedure.  They wrote guidelines, they held brown bags, they conducted half day trainings. They’ve been doing things this way for a number of months.  Dismissing cases for non-compliance was not a case of capricious ill temper on the part of the bench.

Anyone who didn’t know what was expected didn’t pay attention or didn’t care to comply.

In the end, it’s the public who pays the price.  Honest people who handed over their lives to people holding themselves out as professionals.  Instead of help, they got bilked out of money and time.

Nobody’s helped here.  Not the consumer who needs help, not the creditor who stands a chance of getting something in a Chapter 13 Plan.  Not the family, not the neighborhood.

The only one who wins here is the lawyer.  Only in a couple of cases were there signs that fees would have to be disgorged.

If anything I’ve said here hits close to your home, do something to remedy the situation.  Get a  mentor; take a course; get a calendar and move the cases along, or get out of the practice.  As you stand, you are a blight on the profession.

Image courtesy of [Crewe]



  1. Well said!  A lot of inexperienced attorneys got into the bankruptcy practice over the last couple of years because it is the “it” thing to do when the economy went south.  Understandable, but not excusable.   If you don’t know how to handle bankruptcy, associate with someone who does before unleashing your bad advice on the general public!

  2. Mitchell Goldstein says

    Standing ovation here. Dabblers need to be aware that like other niche areas (tax, environment, etc.), if you don’t know the law, the procedures, the cases and the practice, you should not be in it.

    I like that you didn’t just tell people to get out. Get better (and there are lots of opportunities to do that). If you don’t want to take the time to do it right, there are plenty of other people who do.

  3. I am pretty new to the practice.  Before I even LOOKED at ordering software, I took some CLE, read the relevant sections of the Code, and read my local rules.  As soon as I could, I took more courses, joined NACBA, joined my local Bankruptcy Inn of Court and I asked as many questions of as many people with a clue as I could find.

    Lazy new lawyers:  stop making us newer guys look bad!  PLEASE get some background in what to do BEFORE you file!

  4. My take on the lawyers in the courtroom I watched was that the bumblers weren’t all necessarily new lawyers, but grey heads new to bankruptcy. 

    Perhaps they fell for the “bankruptcy is just forms” idea. 

    Just because your client needs a bankruptcy doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the one to provide it.  I don’t do my client’s taxes or their wills, even if I have a license that says I can.

  5. Just Some Bankruptcy Lawyer says

    It is not just the “new to bankruptcy” lawyers that are a problem. It is also the experienced bankruptcy attorneys who do not stand up for their clients and fight the cases that need to be fought. Instead, they just cravenly roll over when anyone says boo. 

    It takes more than just good knowledge of the law and practice management skills. A good attorney will also stand up for his client, fight the fights worth fighting, while recognizing that not all hills are worth dying for. 

    • You’re so right, but that’s such a nuance in the carnage I’m watching.
      How do we convince the experienced that trustees don’t wear black robes and call the shots, and even the folks in the black robes are sometimes wrong.
      In the mean time, I’m campaigning for energetic, thoughtful representation in the usual trenches.

  6. Brenda Griswold says

    Thanks Cathy for addressing a problem running rampant.

    “Honest people who handed over their lives to people holding themselves out as professionals.  Instead of help, they got bilked out of money and time”. 

    I have experienced this personally and am about to embark on my 4th attempt to obtain an attorney who is a true professional, one who not only knows the rules but also operates in accordance with them to the best of their ability.  I have seen and heard frustrations from all walks of life and in the end it is the client who has exhausted their funds and therefore has to fold without resolve to their issues.

    Thanks again, Brenda in Montana

  7. Don Petersen says

    Cathy – In central Fla., the bankruptcy judges increased the compensation for CH 13’s to several thousand dollars over the life of the plan.  Although a realistic adjustment of the fees so that they are commensurate with the tasks that BARF, the Court, and the trustees have created, a lot of newbies and (surprisingly) even a few established CH 7 attys could not resist the attractive nuisance this created.   While newbies accounted for the vast majority of the problems (nothing filed until the eve of confirmation hearing, etc.) two major TV advertisers were also routinely unprepared   Although the judges were disgusted by the lack of professionalism, there isn’t too much they could do.  (The judges are understandably reluctant to dismiss cases where the debtor’s counsel is to blame.)  Eventually, both judges  set aside a morning for the “Docket of Shame” where fees are routinely contested by the Trustee and disgorged by the Court.  From the sound of things, your judges are probably approaching this point too.

    • I think that’s the right approach: take the money out of shoddy practice. Otherwise, even the bumblers profit.

  8. You have no right to call anyone a “blight on the profession” notwithstanding that indeed incompetent practitioners harm their clients’ interests.  No one emerges from the womb knowing bankruptcy law and practice.  I personally recommend reading the “bankruptcy basics” books put out by Nolo, an excellent plain-English legal publishing company.

    • Just Some Bankruptcy Lawyer says

      If an experienced attorney who see a bumbler harm his or her client cannot call the bumbler a blight on the profession, who can?  One of the consequences of being in a profession is the obligation to police our own. 

    • Ari, I agree with Mark; we are a self-policing profession.  There’s a difference between someone who’s just a newbie trying to do the right thing and a lawyer who lacks knowledge after practicing for quite some time.  The former is understandable, the latter despicable.

      I’m sure that in the 3 years since you began filing bankruptcy cases in the Middle District you’ve seen some bad lawyers.  If they’ve looked to improve their base of knowledge then good for them.  If not, they should be sent packing for the good of the profession, the consumer, and the bench.

      You’re a NACBA member, and I presume you’ve been to a few events.  I hope you’ll be going to the Amelia Island workshop in the fall.  Events such as those are what helps even the most experienced practitioner evolve and grow.

    •  What would you call “professionals” who hold themselves out as having a particular skill which is opaque to the layman; who doesn’t read the local rules; doesn’t respond to a motion to dismiss the client’s case; takes the money, and doesn’t get it that his performance was sub par?