Need to file bankruptcy but don't think you can afford an attorney? Learn how to get free legal help to get your fresh start in Oakland, California.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated October 15, 2020
Living in the Bay Area doesn’t come cheap. Too often, Oakland residents find themselves struggling with debt through no fault of their own. Thankfully, there are ways to successfully manage debt and even to achieve debt relief without hiring a lawyer. Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy is such a straightforward process that most filers can successfully prepare their bankruptcy cases without the assistance of a law firm. If you’re not comfortable filing on your own, you may be able to develop an attorney-client relationship with a free bankruptcy lawyer through a legal aid society.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
Most of the time, if you’re eligible to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and you don’t own unusually expensive property, you can prepare and submit your bankruptcy petition without hiring a bankruptcy law office to help you. Sometimes, it makes sense to hire a bankruptcy lawyer to help with a Chapter 7 case. For example, filers who own small businesses, real estate other than a primary residence, or luxury property may benefit from seeking paid legal advice. Otherwise, these filers risk losing much of their property as part of a liquidation process. Other filers simply prefer not to prepare their cases themselves, which is always a valid approach.
However, most individuals who are eligible to seek debt relief under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code can do so successfully without a bankruptcy attorney’s help. Why is the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process so straightforward? Only members of low-income households are permitted to file for consumer bankruptcy relief under Chapter 7. The bankruptcy courts understand that those who meet Chapter 7 income limits can’t afford legal help. Therefore, they try to ensure that most filers can complete the Chapter 7 process without paid legal assistance.
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
Anyone who earns too much money to pass the Chapter 7 Means Test will be considered ineligible to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief. If your family doesn’t pass the Chapter 7 Means Test, you can explore filing bankruptcy under Chapter 13 as a debt relief option. Chapter 13 bankruptcy filers restructure their debts so that their monthly debt payment becomes manageable. At the end of a successful 3-5 year repayment plan period, any remaining eligible debts are discharged.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy can provide a way for steady wage earners to achieve a fresh financial start over time. However, the process of creating a repayment plan is complex enough that you shouldn’t attempt it alone. Statistically speaking, most Chapter 13 cases filed without the help of a bankruptcy law firm fail. Thankfully, most of your lawyer’s fees can be paid back over 3-5 years through your repayment plan. Most filers end up paying back their legal fees using funds that would have been sent to their other creditors regardless.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
If you’re eligible to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you may also be eligible for free or low-cost legal services provided by a legal aid society. Most, although not all, legal aid societies exclusively provide assistance to lower-income members of the community.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
It’s important to understand two things before committing to work with a legal aid society. First, you may need to wait before you can begin working one-on-one with a staff or volunteer attorney. Legal aid societies, unlike private law firms, are funded by donations and grants. They don’t have access to infinite resources. When their services are in high demand, clients are put on waitlists before work on their cases can begin.
Second, you’ll almost certainly be screened for eligibility when you contact a legal aid society to request your appointment. Understandably, these organizations can’t provide free and low-cost legal help to everyone who needs it. Therefore, you’ll likely be asked questions about your income and your household, etc. before (hopefully) being cleared to receive assistance.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
Each legal aid society is an independent organization. Therefore, each employs different eligibility criteria when offering legal services to the community. Some organizations are required to help certain members of the community as a condition of their funding. For example, aid societies who receive funds from the Legal Services Corporation must generally provide services to members of households whose annual income isn’t higher than a specific dollar amount. However, each organization is different.
It’s important to contact organizations directly to confirm their eligibility criteria before making assumptions (either positive or negative) about whether you qualify for their assistance.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
There are many legal aid societies in the Bay Area. One or more may be able to help you with your legal issues. Use the phone numbers, addresses, and other contact information below to research the eligibility criteria used by each and their expected wait times.
Bay Area Legal Aid
1735 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA 94612
California Indian Legal Services, Inc.
609 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido, CA 92025
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
1430 Franklin Street, Suite 103, Oakland, CA 94612
Central California Legal Services
2115 Kern Street, Suite 1, Fresno, CA 93721
Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc.
1040 Iowa Avenue, Suite 109, Riverside, CA 92507-2106
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer
If you’re unsure of whether you should file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you’re unsure of whether you want to file on your own, or you simply have questions about your debt relief options, consider scheduling an initial consultation with a bankruptcy lawyer. A consultation (which most bankruptcy attorneys offer for free) is a confidential meeting that you can attend with no risks or obligations attached. Meeting with an attorney in a consultation setting doesn’t mean you’ll have to work with that attorney moving forward. It’s simply a great way to ask a professional (not a paralegal) questions and to get a case evaluation.
To find a bankruptcy attorney in Oakland, hop on the California State Bar Association website and/or Bay Area bar association websites. You can also ask someone who has been through the bankruptcy process before to give you a recommendation. Also, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) has a “find an attorney” feature on its website, which is worth checking out.
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
If you feel “up to the challenge” of filing for bankruptcy without a lawyer’s help, you’ll be referred to as a “pro se filer” by the court. This will be true even if you meet with a lawyer in a free consultation setting. All this designation means is that you’ve chosen to represent yourself instead of allowing a lawyer to represent your case for you.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
If your financial situation isn’t unusually complex and filing pro se makes sense for your circumstances, you’ll want to take advantage of free, reputable resources designed to help self-filers navigate the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process successfully. For example, the non-profit organization Upsolve – which is funded in part by Harvard University – offers self-filers access to two helpful resources for free. The first is a Learning Center platform, which features articles and guides written by attorneys about the Chapter 7 pro se filing process. This resource, which is available without a login, also features information about debt relief alternatives.
The second helpful self-filing resource hosted by Upsolve is afree online filing tool. This resource helps eligible filers access and prepare the forms required by different bankruptcy courts throughout the United States. This tool is only applicable for those who can file bankruptcy via “simple cases.” However, it can take a lot of the guesswork and stress out of the pro se filing process for those who are able to take advantage of it.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
If you prefer to read printed material instead of accessing pro se filing information online, head to the nearest bankruptcy court. Courts often provide free guides related to the different kinds of bankruptcy, instructions on how to request a filing fee waiver, tips on how to prepare for a meeting of creditors, etc.
Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and Courthouse
255 East Temple Street Los Angeles, CA 90012
21041 Burbank Boulevard Woodland Hills, CA 91367
Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse
411 West Fourth Street Santa Ana, CA 92701
3420 Twelfth Street
3420 Twelfth Street Riverside, CA 92501
Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse
325 West F Street San Diego, CA 92101
Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and United States Courthouse
280 South First Street San Jose, CA 95113
Oakland City Center
1300 Clay Street Oakland, CA 94612
Phillip Burton United States Courthouse
450 Golden Gate Avenue San Francisco, CA 94102
Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse
2500 Tulare Street Fresno, CA 93721
1200 I Street
1200 I Street Modesto, CA 95354
Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse
501 I Street Sacramento, CA 95814
If you’re unsure of whether you should hire an attorney or file your bankruptcy case yourself to save money, that’s okay. You’re in control of your case and you can make these decisions on your own timeline. Know that if you choose to file pro se, there are many free resources available to help you prepare your case efficiently and successfully. If you choose to work with a law firm, make sure to attend an initial consultation first. That way, you’ll get a feel for their operation and approach to representation.
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a big step. It can help you achieve a fresh start, but it isn’t the best option for everyone who struggles with personal debt. If you want to explore all of the debt management and debt relief options available to you, consider scheduling a free credit counseling session with an accredited non-profit credit counseling agency in Oakland.