Nobody Taught Me How To Be An Effective Consumer Bankruptcy Lawyer.
If you’re like most consumer bankruptcy lawyers, you got into this terrific field of law quite by accident. I fell into this practice having hung out my shingle with a classmate from Hastings directly out of school. We weren’t really rash: we did wait for the bar results to come out, confirming our admission to the bar, before having the phone lines installed!
I’ve been practicing bankruptcy law on the San Francisco Peninsula for over 30 years. These days, I describe myself as wife, mother and lawyer, the identities reordered to suit the occasion.
I grew up in a tiny town in California’s Central Valley, the oldest of four children. My father was a veterinarian, which meant we lived on a small ranch, had horses for fun; cattle for a little extra cash, and goats, sheep, and whatever exotic pets my father acquired just for the heck of it. I learned to train horses, was a highly successful 4-Her, and an odd duck in a time and place that didn’t know what to do with a bright, ambitious, and energetic girl not interested in being a cheerleader. Home was a refuge; among the four children, we’ve evolved into three lawyers and a university professor.
I got into bankruptcy law just after we opened our law office. The lawyer with the office next door was a bankruptcy practitioner and scratched on our door one day with a problem. His best client, the bankruptcy trustee, had sent him a case he couldn’t take because of a conflict. We’d been practicing for all of six months, so we had few clients and therefore few conflicts. The deal was this: if we’d take the case, he’d show us the ropes.
I tried bankruptcy and loved it. It was practical, result oriented and intellectually rich. You saw all kinds of people and businesses and explored the intriguing intersections where federal bankruptcy law met state law. I was hooked.
I represented trustees for about the first 10 years I practiced bankruptcy and in the early 90’s moved more and more to a debtor practice. When the debt limits in Chapter 13 increased from $100K/300K , I threw myself into the practice, as Chapter 13 had just become meaningful for homeowners in the high cost San Francisco Peninsula.
But once I got into it I realized there was no roadmap for being an effective consumer bankruptcy lawyer. Sure there were some books, an annual seminar, and, eventually a listserv or two to use as a sounding board. But there were no law school classes to fill in the blanks, and most of my education was trial by fire. A few grizzled veterans helped when they could, but often I found that they were doing nothing more than going along to get along. No new ideas, no new energy.
There had to be a better way to practice bankruptcy law, and to do it right. So I did what my dad had done with those animals for all those years – I tried to diagnose legal maladies and identify or develop a tool to fix it. Then I started challenging the status quo – not in a Don Quixote sort of way, but in a measured, well-reasoned fashion that relied heavily on the Code and precedent.
I got the wind knocked out of my sails more than once; success and effectiveness does not equal a 100% win record. The key was to do the best I could for my clients within the bounds of the law, and to increase my professional capital with the bench and bar while I did it.
Fast forward 30 years.
Today, I practice with a partner Renee Mendoza in Mountain View, just down the block from Google, and down the freeway from Stanford, where I received my undergraduate degree in political science. Practice is booming, my clients know they’re in good hands, and the bench at least listens when I speak.
So much so that about 6 months ago the local judges and trustees started looking to me as a go-to person for new lawyers. For a time I counseled individual lawyers on how to practice bankruptcy law; as they became more proficient in a short amount of time, more people started calling. They begged, pleaded, and cajoled in an effort to get me to serve as their mentor.
But there are only 24 hours in a day, and my dance card filled up quickly. Why not start teaching how to be a bankruptcy lawyer, came the calls.
I was reluctant to become a teacher because it would take too much time, too much effort. My kids are grown, and I enjoy spending time with my husband, an engineer, in the house we built while I was in law school. We’ve got a black and white Staffordshire terrier puppy, rescued by my younger son from an impossible living situation. Quiz, the “puppy”, is on his way to being 75 pounds and a genuine threat to maim you by sitting resolutely on your feet and pounding you with his tail.
I count myself incredibly lucky to find the practice of law more satisfying with each year. I continually see new wrinkles in the law, I meet people whose lives I can better with the skills I bring to the table.
My life is full.
Eventually, I got tired of saying no. My judges and trustees saw the need. My colleagues wanted my help. And the consumers who needed a good bankruptcy lawyer numbered too many to be served by my office. So I relented and began to teach a group of eager young bankruptcy lawyers.
And that’s where Bankruptcy Mastery comes in. It’s a way to pass on my hard-won knowledge and understanding of the way things work in bankruptcy court.
So lean forward, take good notes, and remember that if you aren’t willing to put in the effort then you’ll never attain your goals.