First Principles For First Meetings

Once again, I sat in a 341 meeting where the trustee purported to deliver vital information to the assembled debtors.

She had a captive audience of anxious listeners.  She had ostensible power of life and death over their financial future.

They needed to know what she had to say.

But as communication, it failed.  Badly.  For utterly avoidable reasons.

The delivery was rushed, mumbled, and monotone.

The word choice was ill suited for an audience unfamiliar with bankruptcy.

I doubt one in ten absorbed the message.

Examination under oath

The experience that triggered this rant involved a client who superficially spoke English, but not well enough to catch precise meanings in her second language.

We opted for an interpreter so that we were as sure as you can be that the debtor understood the question.

And yet, the trustee’s counsel asked long, involved questions in the alternative.

The form of the questions had the interpreter struggling, I think.  Certainly, the debtor floundered.

And asking a older woman, in the spotlight, with minimal education, to distinguish on the fly between “discharge” and “dismissal” of  prior cases served little purpose.

It took 30 minutes to get through the examination of a relatively simple case, in large part because of the way questions were asked.

So here’s my two cents for trustees on really communicating with bankruptcy debtors.

Slow down

Every trustee has delivered the opening spiel a thousand times.  But each meeting’s audience has never heard it before.

If you just jet through the recitation that you’ve done a gillion times, little information is actually conveyed.

Deliver your message like you actually want your hearer to internalize it.  If the information is important, let that show in your delivery.

Pause between sentences or topics. Use emphasis.  Mark the changes of topic audibly so your audience can follow the shift.

Articulate.

Use short sentences

Can the long sentences, the conditional clauses, the rambling inquisition.

You control the meeting. You don’t have to pack everything into a single question.

Most debtors aren’t at their best at the 341 meeting.  Make it easy for them to understand what you want to know.

In prepping my clients for a 341 meeting, I urge them to answer questions with as few words as necessary.  The trustee can always ask another question if they need to know more, I tell them.

You can ask another question.  So make the first question simple and short.

Choose simple words

As bankruptcy professionals, we speak our own legal dialect.  The words of  our trade pack a lot of condensed background for those of us who speak the dialect.

Debtors don’t share that vocabulary.  Use common English words.

And be mindful of the common understanding, or misunderstanding, of  common words.

My pet peeve is asking debtors about their “property” when you really want to know about their “assets”.  For many, “property” carries the connotation of real property, land and houses.

Be sure that you recognize that layfolks often think that “assets” are only tangible things.  Probe for the intangibles.

“Transfer” in our lexicon is much broader than in common parlance.  Few laymen see the grant of a lien as a transfer.

Don’t expect a layman to know whether prior cases were “discharged” or “dismissed” without some context.  Hell, I get attorneys botching that distinction.

Make the most of the meeting

Careful attention to your delivery can increase the liklihood that your messages are received.  Careful formulation of your questions nets real information and a useable record.

 

Comments

  1. Sarah Little says

    All true. but same is true for Debtor’s counsel BEFORE it goes to 341 meeting – how much of this stuff was omitted from the schedules? Yesterday two cases in a row by same firm had undisclosed real estate interests. It’s not just Trustees who are not effectively communicating with Debtors.

    • Absolutely true. And from the outside, we can’t tell whether the attorney was sloppy or the client inattentive. My point is that to make a meaningful record from the 341 meeting, trustees need to listen to themselves through the filter of their lay audience.

    • Sally Elkington says

      Agtee