Feb 03, 2009

Why People Don't File Bankruptcy Sooner: It's the Attorney Fees, Stupid

In a January 24th New York Times article entitled "Bankruptcy as a Step to Solvency," "Your Money" writer M.P Dunleavey quotes several bankruptcy "stars" (including Elizabeth Warren and Katherine Porter) about why people wait so long to file for bankruptcy. They point out that people suffer for an unreasonably long time under oppressive debt loads and that in many cases filing bankruptcy would restore already-trashed credit sooner than trying to rebuild the credit by avoiding bankruptcy in the first place.

All fine and good. I agree. People should file sooner rather than later, and their credit score should not hold the sway that it does. But the reason why people wait is not primarily because of credit concerns. People aren't stupid. They know their credit is in the toilet. So what's the real reason? It's primarily because attorney fees roughly doubled as a result of the 2005 changes, now in the neighborhood of $1500 and $2000 for the most basic Chapter 7 bankruptcies. In a word, bankruptcy attorneys have become unaffordable.  

This would be tragic but for the fact that there is seldom a good reason to use an attorney in a consumer Chapter 7 case. The procedures are almost exclusively administrative -- that is, there is no appearance before a judge, or any advocacy involved. The forms are all (with very few exceptions) pre-printed in plain English, intended for the bankruptcy filer's use and easily available in fillable format on the official U.S. Courts website. There are good plain English guides available, including How to File For Chapter 7 Bankruptcy written by this blog's authors, now in its 15th edition. There are plenty of bankruptcy attorneys afoot who are more than happy to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling for little or no money for people who want to check in with a professional.

What's tragic is that people think they have to have attorney representation. This belief stems in part from the fact that articles such as the one in the Times continually misrepresent the nature of Chapter 7 bankruptcy. For example, the article states: "Because bankruptcy is so complex, and because bankruptcy laws underwent a major overhaul in 2005, many people are not only wary of filing, but also confused about their options and what the possible outcomes are." People may be confused but the assertion that the confusion is justified by the complexity of the subject is flat out wrong in most cases. Yet, the exception becomes the rule, and anyone reading this article believes they can't handle their own bankruptcy. The bankruptcy bar can only smile at this intentional or unintentional piece of attorney marketing propaganda.

The article ends with a recommendation by Professor Katherine Porter that a lawyer can help you decide on the best type of bankruptcy to file (Chapter 7 or Chapter 13) and that you can find a lawyer on the website for the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. And that's where the article ends. Not a word about the fact that over 20% of Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings are accomplished without a lawyer and not a peep about the resources offered by Nolo and other publishers of self-help law books.

By failing to acknowledge the possibility of self-representation and delivering its readers to attorneys they can't afford, the article becomes part of the problem. Ironically, self-representation is the one approach that may produce the very result the article recommends -- that is, get thee into a bankruptcy court sooner rather than later.