22 May Of Beauty Pageants and Price Shoppers
Bankruptcy lawyers don’t get no respect. It doesn’t matter whether you work for big firms or run a solo shop, there’s something humiliating in this market for each of us.
The Wall Street Journal provided an inside look yesterday at the “beauty pageant” for lawyers and financial advisers trying out for an opportunity to represent the creditors committee for Linens ‘n Things Chapter 11 case. Peter Lattman has a vivid description of a beauty pageant here too. A beauty pageant is where everyone who wants to provide professional services to the committee representing and advising creditors audition for the job. If they win, they may be paid handsomely. But in order to get the job, you have to put on a show for the creditors of the committee and convince them you are the brightest star in this particular sky. As a renowned bankruptcy attorney, Jay Indyke, is quoted saying, “I’ve been complaining about the indignity of these things for years, but no one listens.”
In a few minutes of show-and-tell, you may win or lose a multi-million dollar opportunity for your firm. Remember how scared you get about speaking to a roomful of people? Then imagine your career and dozens or hundreds of jobs at your office depend on you. You have jet lag, a head cold and your luggage is apparently on its way to Dusseldorf. But, hey, no pressure.
For consumer lawyers, the humiliations can come in smaller doses but they come all day, every day. Most typically they come from well-meaning folks who want to know what it costs to file bankruptcy. They need help, they don’t have a lot of money and lawyers are “always” expensive. The call often boils down to, “Hey, I have an easy case, what will you charge me?”
At one level I’m proud of folks wanting to cut the best deal they can. If poor money management helped cause their problems, then they are already taking the first steps to curing it.
But from the other side of the phone, it’s an instant balancing act. You don’t want to insult the caller by saying, “How in the world can you know if it will be ‘easy’ when even I won’t know until I’ve spent an hour dissecting your situation?” And if you take a little pride in your work, you realize the caller assumes all the lawyers are the same — so consumer lawyers don’t even have an opportunity to put on a beauty contest like our large firm brethren. It is hard to escape the feeling the caller expects your office to come with a big menu on the wall and a drive-thru window. “That’ll be a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to go, would you like fries with that?”
Very few attorneys get wealthy working for consumers going broke. It’s not uncommon for us to represent people in bankruptcy who are actually making more than we are. Like the judges who could be making far more in private practice who go to work every day to try to make the law better, our motivation comes not from the money but from the little victories representing everyday people.
And we’ll look into the drive-thru window another day.
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