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.
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
Image courtesy of sifter.