Why Your Bankruptcy Client Doesn’t Understand You (And How To Fix the Problem)

bankruptcy terms

Bankruptcy attorneys and their clients often seem to be a pair,  divided by their common language. 

Even without legal jargon, we talk past each other.

Words at war

How do we misunderstand each other?  Let me count the ways:

  • Property:  I don’t have any property, lost the house to foreclosure last year.
  • Property 2:  I don’t own the house, the bank does
  • Here are my debts:  I’m current on everything  else
  • Value:  well, no,  I couldn’t sell it for that today
  • Debts:  not my debt, my (brother, child, parent) is the primary borrower
  • Assets:  you want bank accounts too?
  • Legal rights:  I didn’t include it because I haven’t filed the case
  • Taxes:  Nothing’s owed because I haven’t filed the return
  • Ownership:  not mine since I put title in my son’s name
  • Full disclosure:  sure I have clothes, they’re not worth anything
  • Transfer   that’s a bus token, isn’t it?
  • Letter from court  yes, it does have numbers down the left margin
  • Inheritance:   none: probate is still pending
  • Real estate   it really belongs to the bank
  • Inheritance :   yes, when my parent passes

If you’ve seen more than three clients, you’ve experienced the fact that, between the choice of our words and the client’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of  the law, what appears to be the same question  can produce wildly different answers.

My friend and colleague Susanne Robicsek recounted the client who vehemently denied having a sofa or a davenport, but admitted to having a couch.

The fix

For this reason, a skilled practitioner comes at these essential questions with different words, in different contexts, in writing and in interview, to wring the necessary information from the debtor.

The consequences of not getting the information right range from embarassing to malpractice. So, it’s worth the effort.

Your turn.  What words get mismatched answers from your clients?

More on the initial client interview

Finding the hidden stuff

Why my consultations aren’t free

Are you playing with a full deck of cards?

Image courtesy of sifter.


  1. Giving a lien is a transfer, one that clients don’t intuitively see.

  2. SharonDemarque says

    Absolutely agree. Of course, it’s also crucial for the attorney to understand the terms they’re attempting to explain. I’ve heard quite a few get hung up on that “transfer” thing. Yes, paying money is a transfer. (Then you get into the really interesting questions regarding “ordinary course” and “value”).

  3. Ha ha ha ha ha. So true. Although my first and number one response is, “Why do they want all of this information?” Followed, of course, by, “How will they know if I don’t put X down?”

    Before I even get into explaining the terms, I find myself having to give a little primer on lawyer ethics. 

    Great post. Thank you.

  4. Sammyquick39 says

    Most frequent: clients talk about “including  x in their bankruptcy” as in: I don’t want to include that debt in my bankruptcy, or “why did my mortgage company get notice? I told you I don’t want to include the house in the bankruptcy!” or “I didn’t tell you about my tax debt because I know you can’t put taxes in a bankruptcy.” This variously means: listing debts or not, reaffirming debts or not, including debts as part of a Chapter 13 Plan versus paying them directly, or even disclosing assets. And they always expect me to know exactly what they mean with that phrase. 


  1. […] talked before about language-induced misunderstandings between client and lawyer.  Make sure you have questions and phrases that will flush out any […]