Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?

As bankruptcy lawyers, it is not uncommon for us to receive a panicked phone call from a person who attempted to file bankruptcy pro se, without the assistance of an attorney. They find out too late that they did not fill out the bankruptcy forms properly, and had their petition thrown out by the court. Remember the old Lincoln adage, “he or she who represents himself has a fool for a client.” It certainly holds true in Federal Bankruptcy Court. A likely compromise and a seemingly safer option consumers are turning to involves hiring a paralegal to file their bankruptcy, paying them a fraction of the cost they would pay an attorney.

You see it all the time in Orlando and especially Kissimmee: A sign on the curb at a busy intersection: BANKRUPTCY $199. So who are these people? These people that sell their services for $199 have no interest in how it goes for you once the documents are submitted. After all, they have already collected their money (which is illegal). I see it time and time again, a person coming in totally unprepared what is about to happen and unfortunately, the trustee loves it as they can operate with no lawyer supervision on the other side.

Hiring a paralegal to file your bankruptcy is dangerous for two reasons. One being, it’s illegal under Florida law. Secondly, paralegals are not licensed or qualified to do so. Bankruptcy laws are complex and involve a mix of federal and state law. Statutes, court rulings, and procedural rules all come into play. Even with the simplest of bankruptcy filings, these cases oftentimes involve the knowledge of other areas of law including: contracts, family law, income tax, employment, and litigation.

When a person who is not an attorney offers to prepare legal documents for you, red flags and sirens should be immediately going off, warning you that what they are offering to do for you is not ethical, nor is it legal. When someone acts as an attorney or prepares legal documents when he or she is not a licensed attorney, this is known as unauthorized practice of law.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled on the subject in The Florida Bar v. Catarcio, a case from 1998, which decided what exactly is considered unlicensed practice of law in this type of situation. The Florida Bar v. Catarcio, 709 So. 2d 96 (Fla. 1998). The court ruled that it is considered unlicensed practice of law when a nonlawyer prepares bankruptcy forms for another person, including the bankruptcy petition and any required schedules. A nonlawyer should also not determine whether you should or should not file for bankruptcy.  However, a nonlawyer may sell blank forms necessary for a bankruptcy and complete the forms with information provided in writing by the individual. The Florida Bar v. Brumbaugh, 355 So. 2d 1186 (Fla. 1978). It also constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to represent someone in bankruptcy court. The Florida Bar v. Kaufman, 452 So. 2d 526 (Fla. 1984).

When you hire an experience attorney that has filed thousands of cases, you are also hiring their great reputation with the Court. In my opinion, when we file a case, the trustee knows I am selective with my cases and do not typically take on “problem” cases. The trustee knows we do clean work and they don’t have anything to worry about. We have filed over 10,000 bankruptcy cases in Central Florida.

As attorneys, when we prepare bankruptcy pleadings for our clients, we are following all requirements under the law. If we fail in this respect or do anything unethical or illegal, we will face certain consequences as a result.  Know that paralegals are not bound by the same professional obligations and rules of conduct that we, as lawyers, are bound to.

If you believe that someone is illegally practice law, this information should be reported to the Florida Bar immediately. Call the Florida Bar Unlicensed Practice of Law Department at 850-561-5840.