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 calls.”
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.