A Guide for Pro-Bono Attorneys

This guide explains everything that you, a pro bono attorney, needs to know to help Upsolve debtors get a fresh start. We’ve designed every step of this process to make your experience as convenient and bite-sized as possible. We hope that you’ll make helping Upsolve debtors a recurring part of your pro bono practice. Thanks for joining us on this mission. If you have questions at anytime, please email jonathan@upsolve.org.

I. Summary

II. Why Pro Bono Bankruptcy?

III. How a Case Arrives in Your Attorney Portal

IV. Your Job

V. What’s *Not *Your Job


I. Summary

Upsolve screens debtors who are likely to file and creates a draft petition with documents. Your job is to confirm that filing makes sense, finalize the petition, and meet with the debtor to review the paperwork before filing. Then the engagement is terminated and your job is over.

II. Why Pro Bono Bankruptcy?

There are lots of pro bono opportunities competing for your time. Why bankruptcy? Three reasons: it has big impact, it feels great, and it’s bite-sized and convenient.

  1. Big Impact. Bankruptcy is an extremely powerful poverty fighting tool for folks buried in debt from medical illness, job loss, divorce, and small business failure. Our bankruptcy system was designed to give these Americans “a new opportunity in life and a clear field for future effort.” Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 U.S. 234 (1934). In addition to erasing most debt, Chapter 7 bankruptcy increases one’s likelihood of employment by 12%, stops wage garnishment, increases access to banking, credit, and housing, and has low repeat-filing rates. By our data, each case improves the wealth of each client by over $40,000. Unfortunately, it costs around $2,000 to hire a lawyer to file for Chapter 7, which few can afford. So millions of Americans are too broke to file for bankruptcy. They remain trapped in a cycle of poverty with reduced employment, and reduced access to banking, credit, and housing. That’s where you come in. A pro bono attorney is the only recourse to a fresh start for many folks in your community.
  2. Feels Great. Pro bono bankruptcy work feels amazing. When you guide someone through this process, you’re changing their life forever. Wiping out debt, getting them better credit, making them more employable. You’re giving them a fresh start. Just hear this video from a few Upsolve debtors. A big part of your job as a pro bono lawyer is getting your clients to understand that their life is about to change forever. Countless great Americans like Abraham Lincoln and Walt Disney filed for bankruptcy before their lives turned around. Bankruptcy help is a rewarding way to spend 2 hours of pro bono time.
  3. Bite-sized & Convenient. We’ve practiced at firms, where we’ve done bankruptcy pro bono first hand. We loved the impact the cases made, changing someone’s life forever. But we hated the hours of routine data entry and document collection, sitting in pointless 341 meetings, and worrying about having to represent the debtor in litigation if anything unexpected happens. We designed Upsolve to fix these problems. The most important thing to understand is Upsolve’s bankruptcy filings are pro se and your name is never listed on them. Instead, filings contain this notice stating that the relevant Legal Aid Provider has assisted the debtor in preparing their bankruptcy forms, but makes no certification as to their accuracy. The debtor certifies that they and only they are responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. Thus, you have significantly fewer diligence obligations in assisting an Upsolve debtor than you would as their counsel of record. Your job is done as soon as you’ve reviewed the petition for them. Upsolve will guide the client through the rest of the process to discharge.
III. How a Case Arrives in Your Attorney Portal

The story starts when a debtor calls their local legal aid organization asking for bankruptcy help.

The Legal Aid Provider’s intake staff pulls up Upsolve’s screening questionnaire. The questionnaire, designed by leading bankruptcy scholar Henry Sommer, tells the intake staff whether or not a client would be a good fit for Upsolve. Although we still depend on you, the pro bono attorney, to ensure bankruptcy is a good fit for the debtor, debtors who pass the screener will end up filing about 95% of the time.

Once they pass the screener, the debtor will be referred to Upsolve’s website, where they’ll create an account and complete three pre-filing tasks: answering our Turbotax-style online questionnaire, taking the credit counseling course, and uploading relevant documents. Upsolve orders two years of the debtor’s tax returns from the IRS and a merged Experian/Transunion credit report. We ask the debtor to upload only the last 60 days of pay stubs, if employed. In general, getting documents from debtors is hard and the more documents we require, the more debtors drop out. So we intentionally limit our document requests to the minimum required by the Bankruptcy Code for a fresh start.

Once the debtor completes their pre-filing tasks, Upsolve populates all the required federal and local bankruptcy forms. We review the forms for accuracy. Then, the forms are accessible to the legal aid organization through our attorney portal. Each client case includes all the supporting documents (tax returns, pay stubs, etc.). The Legal Aid Coordinator will assign the case to you, the designated pro bono attorney, responsible for diagnosing the debtor and finalizing the case.

You will receive an email from the legal aid coordinator if you've been assigned a case. Once you receive the email, you should log into your account at attorney.upsolve.org to view it.

If you have not done so, you should create an account at attorney.upsolve.org and read the Attorney Portal Guide.

IV. Your Job

Now the fun begins. This is where you come in. Upon receiving the email from the Legal Aid Coordinator, you will complete the following three steps.

  1. Confirm Filing Makes Sense. You should start by reviewing the draft petition and supporting documents to confirm filing makes sense given the debtor’s financial situation (usually it will). You’ll call the debtor with any questions relating to your diagnosis.
  2. Finalize Petition. If you decide the debtor should indeed file, which you’ll almost always conclude, you can finalize the petition using this checklist. The checklist asks you to review (and revise where necessary) fields populated by Upsolve. The checklist also asks you to enter some information that is currently blank, namely exemptions (Schedule C) and creditors (Schedules D-E/F) that do not appear on the debtor’s credit report. You can edit and revise the PDF petition in Adobe Acrobat Reader, a free desktop application available for download here.
  3. Meet with Debtor on Filing Day. Once you’ve completed the checklist items, you should set up a final meeting with the debtor, either in person or over the phone. At the final meeting, you will review the finalized bankruptcy forms with the debtor to ensure everything is accurate. If meeting in person, you’ll print out the finalized forms for the debtor to sign and file. If meeting over the phone, you’ll email the debtor the finalized forms to sign and file. Because electronic filing is generally not permitted for pro se debtors, the debtor must file the forms in one of two ways: (1) by bringing them to the clerk’s office of their local bankruptcy court or (2) by mailing them there. Hand delivery is the best method, where possible, because it allows the debtor to get a feel for what the court is like and where it’s located.

In the meeting, you’ll also explain to the the debtor the two final tasks they must complete after filing (usually later that day) on upsolve.org/finish. First, they must take their debtor education course. It costs $9.95 and takes 2 hours on a smartphone or computer. Upon completion of the course, the course certificate is automatically filed with the bankruptcy court. Second, they must prepare for their 341 meeting. We have a mock-341 video in which the debtor practices answering the questions that the Chapter 7 Trustee will ask him. After watching this video, debtors will be ready to represent themselves pro se at their 341 meetings.

At the end of your meeting, you email the Legal Aid Provider you’re serving to close the Debtor’s case, letting them know you’ve met with the debtor. And you’re done! In most cases, the debtor will receive a letter of discharge in the mail just over two months after the 341 meeting. In the rare event that further assistance is needed, the Legal Aid Provider will decide whether or not to provide such assistance on its own. Either way, it will not involve you.

V. What is Not your Job

Your job in assisting Upsolve debtors entails the three items above. Now let’s discuss what is not your job. You are not responsible for:

  1. Certifying the Debtor’s Bankruptcy Forms. We know you’ll do a meticulous job in reviewing and revising the forms after consulting with the debtor. But the Debtor is the only one responsible for the accuracy of the forms. You have not signed anything and are not the debtor’s counsel.
  2. Appearing in Court for the Debtor. The debtor at the 341 Meeting by themselves. In the unlikely event that the case devolves into further litigation, like a motion to vacate the automatic stay or an adversary proceeding, the Legal Aid Provider will decide whether they can provide future assistance.
  3. Answering Questions for the Debtor After Filing. The Legal Aide Provider's responsibility.
  4. Following Up With the Debtor After Discharge. Two months after filing, Upsolve emails the debtor to make sure they aren’t being harassed by debt collectors illegally. If they are, we make it easy for the debtor to contact their Legal Aid Provider to pursue further action.

By removing all of these unpleasant parts of traditional bankruptcy pro bono from your purview, we hope you’ll take significantly more cases and help significantly more folks in need get a fresh start. That’s what our work is about at the end of the day.


Thanks for reading! We’re excited to be joining you on this journey to make Chapter 7 bankruptcy more accessible to low-income Americans in your state. If you need any extra help, we’re always available by email at jonathan@upsolve.org.

Warmly,

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) legal aid nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income Americans in financial distress get a fresh start through Chapter 7 bankruptcy at no cost. We do this by combining the power of technology with pro bono attorneys. Spun out of Harvard Law School, our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have mission-driven funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and private charities.

To learn more, read our reviews from past clients, or read our press coverage.