What You Don’t Want in a Bankruptcy Attorney

What You Don’t Want in a Bankruptcy Attorney

The following is illustrative of a point I’ve tried to make to prospective
clients when they are looking for bankruptcy attorney. It makes the point
by negative example.

From the Illinois Times:

In television ads and on the internet, Ostling and Associates boasts that
it is Illinois’ largest bankruptcy law firm.

“When you need help, call Ostling and Associates,” the announcer
on a television commercial urges viewers. “With 20 Illinois offices
to serve you. Call Ostling and Associates now and stop the collection

The ads apparently work. The Bloomington-based firm boasts that it has
handled more than 50,000 cases. But bigger isn’t necessarily better,
judging by a series of harsh rebukes aimed at the firm and its lawyers
by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Mary Gorman.

From the bench in Springfield, Gorman has repeatedly called out Ostling
attorneys for fibbing in court, performing shoddy work and assigning legal
tasks to employees who aren’t lawyers. Clerical workers who help
prepare bankruptcy filings are untrained and unsupervised, and debtors
have suffered, according to the judge who has handed out penalties that
include at least one fine, reductions in legal fees and prohibitions on
two Ostling attorneys from filing court documents.

“I think the most heartbreaking thing of the six years I’ve
spent on the bench, for me, has been the quality of work that I’ve
seen come from the Ostling firm and the number of debtors who have suffered
dramatically due to the pitiful, pitiful quality of that,” Gorman
said during a 2012 hearing. “It is heartbreaking to see debtors
go to the Ostling firm, pay good money and get representation that does
not meet ethical standards or any level of quality standards.”

The Ostling firm is a low cost firm offering Chapter 7 bankruptcy for $650
plus costs on its TV ads. Apparently that’s a sweet spot for Illinois
and they have attracted the price shopping client who assumes that all
bankruptcies are the same and that filing bankruptcy isn’t a lot
different than dropping off your clothes at a dry cleaner or rotating
your tires. Most people only file bankruptcy once, and know nothing about
it, and bankruptcy mills like this take advantage of the client’s
lack of sophistication. However, they can only do this by really not giving
a damn about clients or the outcome of their cases.

There are also mills who do the same here in Los Angeles, Orange County
Riverside and surrounding areas. They have bill boards and TV and radio
ads advertising pricing, sometimes “as low as” $495. Then
they either bait and switch when the potential client comes in, or they
do unconscionably shoddy work. The client hardly meets an attorney and
the only thing the attorney does is sign the documents, with or without
a review of what the documents say, and certainly not being an integral
part of the process.

Bankruptcy legal services should not be marketed as a commodity, but they
are, and I understand that like all goods are services in our economy
bankruptcy legal services are just as hostage to market forces. Maybe
more so in that many debtors have been drained dry by their creditors
before they finally seek help. Yet, this crisis is when most people need
to be best served, with high quality legal and financial advice.

The dishonest legal mills take advantage of the fact that services, unlike
most goods, are
delivered in the future after the money from the client changes hands. Once they have the money
the lawyers are incentivized to do as little as possible, based on the
minimalist fee they have taken. It’s a recipe for failure for the
clients more than the attorneys.

Frankly, it makes me sick. Having dedicated my professional life to helping
debtors transition from indebtedness to financial independence, and wanting
to be a human being first and foremost, using my skills and knowledge
to help other human beings, I find this corrupt approach disgusting and
wasteful. It makes a situation that’s already likely to shame and
erode a client’s self-esteem merely a degrading experience instead
of the redemptive one is should be.

My staff and I are a one attorney firm in which the attorney is involved
in the process deeply from beginning to end. We’re not trying to
be the Wal-Mart of bankruptcy. If we were retailers we would be the Nordstrom’s.
But we’re not retailers—and so that analogy doesn’t
stretch far. We don’t sell goods or fashion. We’re in this
to inspire and change people’s lives for the better by being not
only technically competent, but really caring. I cannot imagine doing
it any other way.