Conducting the Initial Client Interview for Debt Resolution or Bankruptcy
Meeting your potential client for the first time will set the tone for your entire representation. By having a well-reasoned and thorough interview form, you should be able to gain a great map for what questions you may have for this client, what chapter they may need to file,if they need to file at all, and at times, if this is even a good case for you and/or your office. Generally, these are the basic steps we take in conducting an initial interview:
(1) The first thing that happens for clients that come into our office is that they are given a copy of the required disclosures which are located in section 527 of the bankruptcy code. We include a Notice of Non-Representation as well to remind the client that there is no Attorney-Client Relationship until they have signed a retainer agreement, and paid the appropriate retainer fee.
(2) My office has structured an extensive Questionnaire that each of our client’s is required to complete. We want to know the types of debts, how much debt, as well the type of activity that has been going on with any personal loans or credit cards.
(3) After reviewing this interview form, you should already have a good idea as to what this potential client will need to do to obtain the best relief.
(4) Upon meeting the clients, allow them to tell their “story". All clients will have a story about something that brought them to your office. REMEMBER: This is the LAST place they want to be and you need to respect that fact.
(5) After they tell their story, get to any issues and information you want to relay to them, but do it by focusing on their major issue first. This may be saving a house, it may be a garnishment, it may just be that they see what is going to happen and need a way out. Either way, address their issue first before moving on, even if you know that other issues are far more critical given their situation.
(6) As you ask questions about certain debts, recent card use, being behind on mortgages; be sure to actually listen and look at the client(s). You will be amazed as to the response you can get by body language alone.
(7) Be sure to not let your client leave until you have answered all of the questions they wanted to ask at this time.
During this interview, you will find that the way you interact with a client MUST be tailored to individual personalities. That may result in your being more assertive, less assertive and even handling certain clients with kid gloves. No matter the situation, if there are certain issues spotted in a case, than there are always questions that you MUST ask regardless of the client’s mannerisms. In detail, these are the two biggest areas that have numerous questions that simply must be asked: real estate and vehicles.
(a) REAL ESTATE –
a. Do they own more than one property?
b. What is the county tax valuation on the property?
c. What do they think the property is worth? What are other properties selling for in their area?
d. How much do they owe on the mortgage? How many mortgages do they have?
e. Are they current on the payments? If they’re behind, how far behind?
f. Has there been foreclosure filed? If so, has there been a sale date set yet?
g. What type of mortgage do they have, e.g. A.R.M., Fixed (if fixed, for 30 years or fixed, than due to adjust), or a balloon loan?
h. Does their monthly payment include an escrow for taxes and insurance? If not, how much are taxes and insurance? Are they current on the taxes and insurance?
i. Does the house need significant repairs?
j. Whose name is on the deed? Whose name is on the note? Whose name is on the mortgage?
k. Were the deed and mortgage properly executed?
l. Have they been properly recorded?
(b) VEHICLES –
a. How many do they own, this would include ANYTHING that has a title and that person’s name is on the title? Is their more than one person on the title? Do either of these people also have their name on the title of another vehicle?
b. If they do not have any vehicles, how do they get around?
c. If they are “borrowing" a vehicle, has this vehicle ever been in their name?
d. Have they sold, transferred any vehicles in the last 2 years?
e. What are the NADA or KBB guides stating as the value of these vehicles?
f. How much do they owe on the vehicles?
g. Did anyone cosign this loan for you?
h. When did they purchase them?
i. If the vehicle(s) has substantial negative equity, did they roll over amounts owed from a previous vehicle? If so, when did they purchase that other vehicle?
j. Who drives each of the vehicles?
k. Are any of the vehicles used strictly for work purposes?
l. Do they have bare legal title on any of the vehicles? In other words, are they keeping a vehicle in their name because of a minor child and/or insurance purposes?
m. Are they current on the payments? If not, how far behind are they?
n. If multiple vehicles are involved, do they all run?
These are just some of the questions that MUST be asked if you do not have a specific question about them in your interview. By no means is this an exhaustive list as to these properties, nor does it even touch on the numerous other questions that should be asked during the interview. This demonstrates the questions directly involving vehicle and real property and the numerous items that need to be addressed for them alone.
There are also times where you may still need to ask the question as the client may demonstrate to you that he or she does not understand everything being asked. Depending on the situation at hand, you may not even need to ask many of these questions. In general, this list represents the questions you should have when these types of property are involved.
During any follow up that may be needed with your client, you should have already established if a Bankruptcy is the best resolution for them and if so, the type of Chapter being filed and the major issues (if any) that need to be addressed. Most of the questions are answered in the way we obtain information from the client. We essentially have an expanded version of our initial interview form for the client to sign and complete. This accomplishes a couple of tasks for me in obtaining information this way: (1) I have the client’s date, initials and own handwriting in a completed form if they have a question about what they may or may not have given me. (2) The client is directly involved in their own bankruptcy process. They are providing information for their case and I can compare it to the summarized version of their initial interview form.
Typically, there should not be many follow up questions needed if you have taken enough time during the initial consult. That does not mean the client will not have more questions, but as the attorney, unless there was something not disclosed (or not disclosed accurately) there should be few follow up questions in preparing the petition. I invite everyone to check out our website at: www.rieserlaw.com. You’ll find the information about the services that we provide to our clients.