A Christmas Cheer For Consumer Lawyers

25 Dec A Christmas Cheer For Consumer Lawyers

Christmas is usually a slow time for consumer bankruptcy lawyers. The phones go quiet, a few cards come in, a fruit cake from a grateful client now and then. It gives us a chance to pause and consider what we do and why.

Consumer Advocates Are Often Pariahs

As a bankruptcy lawyer, I run a financial VD clinic. Few people want to come see me, no one is happy about it, and they’ll never brag about it to anyone. I am a regrettable necessity, not a pleasant choice.

And society often feels the same. We often hear folks talking about how people with too much debt deserve to suffer or be punished. In a country that cheers winners — and jeers losers in equal measure — we constantly defend the loser and the underdog.

Consumers Going Broke Can’t Pay Much

Becoming a debtor’s attorney often means taking a vow of poverty. It’s possible to make a decent living (but rare to get rich) when you serve folks who are going bankrupt. To be successful at all, we become masters of managing pools of risk, like insurance companies. We must balance the cases that will eat up our days with labor that will never be paid for while searching for those that may pay well enough to make up the losses.

We face opponents who pay better, recruit our best and brightest, and have more resources or leverage to deploy against us. And each year we watch as a few of our colleagues can’t get that balance right and file bankruptcy themselves.

The Work Is Complex

Bankruptcy law is hypertechnical. If you do it exclusively, much of it can be done without deep thought after awhile. But in our legal system it is among the more complex even in very routine cases, partly on purpose. It is also not unusual that we must make bricks with no straw — miracles without money, in this case. Using the law to accomplish things for those with wealth is easy, using it to defend those with nothing is always harder.

The Clients Are Often Unhelpful

Consumers under long-term stress from debt become depressed, disorganized, delusional, and sometimes downright hostile. And then they have to get organized, answer hundreds of questions, produce all sorts of nonsensical paperwork for us, very quickly. It’s hardly a surprise that they don’t seem to be helping themselves or are angry with us for being unsympathetic. After all, we’re adding to the pressures, not lightening them during a process they dread, fear and regret.

The Clients Are Often Ungrateful

Being a lawyer usually means being unappreciated. We’re in the business of picking fights and we’re rarely gracious souls to begin with (or we wouldn’t want to be lawyers, right?). Sadly, bankruptcy debtors often feel more like disaster survivors than happy clients. If you do your job well, they can feel like there was nothing to it — in which case, why did it cost so much? If the going is rough, they may wonder what they got for their money. In either case, their lawyer’s probably not being invited to the New Year’s Party.

So Why Do It?

Trauma surgeons are critical during a war. And that’s kind of what is happening now. Consumers are under siege. The confluence of declining real wages and increasing real costs of living since the 1970s has emptied the consumer’s savings account and the budget gap has been filled with credit. Credit is risk, dressed up as a currency. And risk has been doled out to the public at unprecedented and unimaginable levels.

We go through the economic battlefield and treat the unhappy wounded. We patch up the holes torn in their financial armor. With our knives, saws, and bandages, we save those we can and mourn the ones we can’t. But there’s always another dozen victims waiting. In short, we’re desperately needed.

It can be a thankless but necessary job. You have to take pride in the work itself, in achieving unusual victories even when your client doesn’t understand or care. You have to know what you do is for a greater good.

You have to know these things in your heart. It needs to be enough because there will often be little other reward.

Well, except the fruitcake.


Photo Credit: Salva Barbera

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I have been a bankruptcy attorney since 1989. Our firm represents consumers filing bankruptcy almost exclusively, although I have represented bankruptcy trustees as well as creditors. For 2017-2018 I am also serving on the American Bankruptcy Institute's Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy. If you live in Eastern Missouri, visit our website, send an e-mail or give us a call (314) 781-3400. Our website: STLBankruptcy.com

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