Amid the comfortable camaraderie of the Chapter 13 bar’s holiday gathering, the trustee and I were struck by the paucity of young, or even youngish, faces in the group.
The stout, dedicated lawyers who’ve toiled in the ND CA bankruptcy courts (rather magnificently, if you ask me) are growing old.
And neither the trustee nor I could formulate an honest reason why a capable young lawyer should become a consumer bankruptcy specialist.
What bankruptcy practice requires
This practice, done well, is tough. You start with stressed-out people, shamed and frightened. You have to unravel the strands of their financial lives, then compare the features of that life with the law of the bankruptcy land. You may end up stomping on their financial dreams or fantasies.
Communication skills are paramount. You have to both extract information and feed it back to the client colored by the consequences and options that information allows.
New permutations and interactions populate the practice.
Rewards strictly internal
Without doubt, consumer bankruptcy is emotionally satisfying. You can, fairly predictably, guide financially troubled families to a better place.
In the process, you tend to assume their burdens. Their troubles weigh on you.
Intellectually, it’s a gas to overlay state property law with federal debtor/creditor law and see what shakes out.
Undervalued and under-paid
But assuming you yourself want to eat regularly, bankruptcy practice isn’t appealing.
The bankruptcy system is not set up to provide financial rewards to the practitioner anywhere close to the skills required and the challenges presented.
You start with a client who’s out of money, in the first place. While their circumstances may be complex, their ability to pay for help is limited. Their experience with lawyers is limited and they crave the certainty of a flat fee rather than an open-ended compensation arrangement.
You add a bankruptcy practice that has become, since BAPCPA, more akin to accounting than to financial triage. Every proposition in the schedules requires paper support. Too many judges and trustees assume the debtor isn’t telling the whole truth, unless you produce paper beyond the schedules to support each item.
Yet I’ve not found that the debtor-skeptic atmosphere since 2005 results in a system of debt relief that is any more honest or effective than before “reform”. In fact, the honesty of the overwhelming number of debtors has been consistent and admirable over my nearly 40 years of bankruptcy practice.
Top this seething mess of conflicting themes and abilities with the involvement of the courts in approving the fees of counsel. Judges seldom represented individual debtors before they donned their robes. Even less frequently have they run a small business or tried to raise a family on a middle-rung income in a world ever more challenging for average folks.
Even when the bench expresses its appreciation of counsel, they are slow to adjust the fees they approve to the cost of living or to recognize the unavoidable amount of customized care that more and more consumers require.
Who will argue the counter?
I would love to hear from someone who can make the case that a bright young lawyer, without independent means, should choose consumer bankruptcy as a practice focus.
Image courtesy of R M Media Ltd under a Creative Commons license.