Clients Must Pay Chapter 7 Attorney Fees Up Front

September 26, 2011

 Attorneys have many obligations to their clients. Chiefly, an attorney is expected to represent a client honestly, zealously, and independently. Conflicts do not occur very often for attorneys who represent debtors in consumer bankruptcy cases. However, a conflict between an attorney and bankruptcy client can arise when the attorney is owed attorney fees.

Individual Chapter 7 bankruptcy debtors are typically required to pay three different fees before or at the time the bankruptcy case is filed: a fee for the pre-bankruptcy credit counseling class; the bankruptcy court filing fee, and attorney fees. Unlike Chapter 13 cases where attorney fees may be paid over time after the case is filed, an attorney representing a Chapter 7 debtor must receive any attorney fees before the case is filed. This is because any debt incurred before the case is filed is subject to the bankruptcy discharge. This means that any fees that you may owe your attorney can be discharged. Additionally, your bankruptcy filing prohibits all creditors from attempting to collect on a pre-bankruptcy debt. Your attorney cannot even send you a bill without violating the bankruptcy court’s orders!

While every bankruptcy attorney knows these rules, some less-scrupulous attorneys try to get around the rules through inventive strategies. One such scheme was recently exposed in a lawsuit against Clark & Washington, a large Atlanta law firm that advertises itself as “Georgia’s Largest Bankruptcy Filer.” A class action lawsuit filed by former clients alleges that the firm cashed postdated client checks written for pre-bankruptcy attorney fees after the clients’ Chapter 7 cases were filed. The petition also states that Clark & Washington attorneys did not inform their clients that the post-dated checks were dischargeable through their bankruptcy cases, and cashed the checks after the cases were filed or discharged. Even more egregiously, the class claims that Clark & Washington attorneys did this after a federal bankruptcy judge told them to stop.

The suit makes reference to a July 12 order in which U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Williamson enjoined Clark & Washington from accepting postdated checks as payment of its attorney’s fees for bankruptcy cases filed in Tampa, Florida. Judge Williamson said that the practice of depositing postdated checks after the filing of a bankruptcy case violates the Bankruptcy Code and creates a conflict of interest between an attorney and client.

Don’t fall prey to short-cut law firms advertising low fees and big promises. Your serious legal problem deserves serious representation from an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Call today and get the facts you need to make the right decision from an attorney who will represent you honestly, zealously, and independently.

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