Many financial matters you can easily do on your own without professional help.
Filing for bankruptcy isn't one of them.
But if you choose to do so, you're no longer totally left on your own in Maryland to navigate the intricacies of bankruptcy. Thanks to a new Debtors Assistance Project, do-it-yourselfers can get a half-hour of free legal advice from a lawyer, who can answer questions or check paperwork.
"It's not going to solve everybody's problem on that day. That's not what it's designed to do," says Jeff Sirody, a Pikesville lawyer who volunteers with the project. "It's designed to give people an opportunity to speak with an attorney. Is there any easy solution? If not, what's the next step? Where should they go to get help?"
The need for the program grew out of changes to the bankruptcy law in 2005. Congress made it more difficult for people to erase debts, piling on new requirements and paperwork. Lawyers raised their fees because of the extra work. And many courts across the country started seeing a rise in so-called pro se litigants, or debtors who file on their own often because they can't afford a lawyer.
Pro se cases tend to take more time as court staffers try to steer novice litigants through the complicated process. Judges, too, have their hands tied when they come across a struggling pro se filer because they are supposed to be neutral and not give legal advice, says Chief Judge Duncan W. Keir of the bankruptcy court in Baltimore.
The big risk is for debtors. "They lose rights, privileges and property that they otherwise could protect and preserve if they had legal counsel," said Mark Sammons, clerk of the court in Baltimore. Worse, pro se filers' mistakes could cause their case to be dismissed.
Nationally, the number of pro se cases accounted for 6.5 percent of all bankruptcies filed in the 12 months ended March 31. During that same time, Maryland reported 1,889 pro se cases, making up nearly 10 percent of its bankruptcies.
Most of Maryland's pro se filers seek relief under Chapter 13, a more complex filing where debtors repay all or some of their debt over several years. Last year, nearly one out of five Chapter 13 bankruptcies in Maryland was from do-it-yourself filers.
A year ago, the bankruptcy court in Maryland started looking at what programs were available here and around the country to help pro se litigants, particularly Chapter 13 cases where filers have more to lose if they make a mistake.
"Those were the cases that people were trying to save their houses," says Bankruptcy Judge Robert A. Gordon.
Low-income debtors filing under Chapter 7, or liquidation, can qualify for free - pro bono - legal representation through long-running programs by Legal Aid or the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service. But there wasn't much available for those wanting to file under Chapter 13 or earned a little too much to qualify for pro bono programs, says Jessica Vollmer, the court's pro bono coordinator.
The result was the Debtors Assistance Project, a clinic on the eighth floor of the federal courthouse in Baltimore. The clinic opened in March in Baltimore, and another was launched last month in Greenbelt.
The clinics are open to any pro se litigants, no matter their income. They operate from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays in Greenbelt and usually on Mondays in Baltimore. To make an appointment, call 410-962-3813.
Lawyers volunteer for two-hour sessions, spending a half-hour with each debtor. "Usually, 30 minutes is more than enough time for those attorneys to give [debtors] an idea of what they are getting themselves into, whether bankruptcy is right for them, what chapter they should be filing and to help us get them the resources if they think they can't do it by themselves," Vollmer says.
The court has created a list of lawyers who agree to reduce their fees for debtors who earn too much for free legal representation but still not enough to hire a lawyer. The amount of the discount is up to each lawyer.
Eric Walker of Edgewood had about $40,000 in debt and creditors hounding him when he decided to file for relief under Chapter 7.
He called around to find an affordable lawyer with little luck. The least expensive attorney would charge $1,200, including the filing fee - money he didn't have. The 30-year-old called the bankruptcy court about his plight and was told of the Debtors Assistance Project. He met with a lawyer last month.
"She had patience. I'm new to it. She had a lot of knowledge," says Walker, a customer account representative at a rental store. The lawyer gave him information that he says he would never have been able to find on his own.
He wishes, though, that the program offered longer sessions. "You have to cram a lot of stuff in a half-hour," he says.
Pikesville lawyer Sirody has volunteered twice so far. "Invariably in every pro se case mistakes are made. There is so much involved," he says.
In one case, a woman came in wanting to file under Chapter 7, unaware that if she did so, her house would be quickly sold off by the trustee to repay creditors. As it turns out, she decided not to file for bankruptcy at all.
And one man came in with papers from the court, which showed he failed to undergo the required credit counseling before filing. His case was dismissed. The man will be able to file again, although he'll need to take an additional step as a repeat filer if he wants to keep creditors at bay for more than one month. Sirody told him how to do it.