The purpose of the Bankruptcy Pro Se Assistance Clinic is to provide quick answers to sometimes easy, sometimes complicated questions in a 30-minute consultation. You must be able to quickly spot issues and get right to the core of each person’s problem.
Each client will arrive with a different situation. You will see both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 issues; some people will have already filed their cases and some will not. While you have only 30 minutes, you must be able to answer the question(s) that the client has and bring attention to the questions the client does not know to ask. Quite often, the ultimate answer is that you cannot completely answer all of the questions or address all of the issues and that the client should obtain competent legal counsel.
We recommend that Pro Se Assistance Clinic volunteers follow three steps during consultations. First and foremost, make sure the client fills out and understands the following forms:
- the “Intake Sheet“, which is retained by the Pro Se Assistance Clinic to track certain statistics.
- the “Bankruptcy-Related Questions”, which is used to gain an understanding of the client’s financial condition and is shredded on-site or returned to the client after the meeting and
- the “Agreement for Limited Legal Advice”, which confirms the limited scope of legal advice provided and contains a conflict waiver.
Next, determine why the client is there. A good way to initiate discussion is to inquire why the client signed up for the meeting. Some people have very specific questions; others are looking for direction. The client will most likely bring papers with him or her, so a review of those papers is a good starting point. While each situation is different, the following questions are often appropriate:
- Have you filed a bankruptcy case yet? If they have not filed yet, you may use the form 19 titled “Bankruptcy Pre-Filing Counseling Worksheet” to guide you during your consultation. You may give this worksheet to the client at the end of your consultation to assist them as they move forward with their case.
- Have you filed a bankruptcy case before? If so, consider whether the client is eligible for the type of discharge requested. Also, consider whether it is helpful for him or her to be in bankruptcy even if a discharge is not available.
- Did you obtain a credit counseling certificate prior to filing your bankruptcy case?
- What is your average annual income? Determine whether his income is above or below the median income for Maryland. Also, determine whether he calculated the annual income correctly and whether there are enough expenses to challenge the presumption of abuse.
- Do you have primarily consumer or business debts?
- Has a meeting of creditors been held yet? If not, discuss what documents the client should take to the meeting.
- Did you obtain a financial management certificate? If not, discuss the applicable time frame and the consequences of his failure to obtain the certificate (his discharge would be denied).
- Do you understand what the discharge is?
- Have you prepared your petition, schedules and statement of financial affairs? If the client has prepared but not yet filed them, review for completeness and obvious errors and omissions (e.g., assets the client wants to keep, debts to family and friends, car accidents, litigation, pending claims, etc.)
- Have you filed all required tax returns or requested extensions of time to file?
- Has anyone asked you to reaffirm a debt? If so, discuss the concept and requirements of reaffirmation with him or her.
- Has anyone assisted you in preparing your petition, schedules and/or statement of financial affairs? If so, determine whether the person who assisted is a bankruptcy petition preparer and if all necessary disclosures were made.
If time allows, you can also discuss specific dischargeability issues, fraudulent transfers, titling of property and other more advanced topics.
The bottom line is – you are trying to “stabilize” the situation by determining the heart of the problem quickly, answer the client’s questions, provide useful information and guide them in the right direction. Which leads to the third and final step…
Finally, discuss the next step for the client to take after he or she leaves the Pro Se Assistance Clinic office. Hopefully, the client will be “stabilized”, and you will have convinced him or her to seek competent legal advice instead of trying to navigate the complex bankruptcy system on his or her own. Remember our goal: to increase the likelihood that the client has a successful outcome to their bankruptcy case.