Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why we do it

OK. I'll admit that there are a lot of things wrong with the practice of law. There are also a lot of things wrong with representing consumers in Bankruptcy practice.

(smirk)Bet you're all surprised to hear me say that.(/smirk)

No, really. It is the absolute truth!

But I got a note from my buddy in Salt Lake this morning that made me shake my head. In a good way. All I could say as I shared it with some of the other employees of the firm was, "THIS is why we do it, day in and day out."

I will not go into the full story, but suffice it to say he had a client who was about to lose her house, sending herself and her three children out onto the streets two weeks before Christmas. The only thing that would save her was to receive a discharge from her Chapter 13 case.

She had gone through the wringer in 2007 and 2008; divorced, sole support of the family, left with HIS debts to pay off, children with serious chronic illnesses -- illnesses that affected her ability to work regular full-time hours, facing shut-off of gas and other utilities. She had received periodic help from family members in Mexico, who sent her what little they could scrape together to help her survive. She, admittedly and arguably, violated a court order by sending her tax refund this year back to her family members in Mexico who were now, themselves, in serious financial trouble.

The one high note? She scraped together everything she could so that she could receive her United States Citizenship. That, more than anything, convinced my buddy to really, really go to the mat for her. (That's what HE says. Actually, I believe that the thought of a homeless woman and her children at Christmas was what really affected his decision. The Citizenship efforts just pushed it over the edge.)

But this poor woman caught a little break: she was eligible to receive housing assistance, but the catch? She was only eligible if her Chapter 13 bankruptcy was completed.

The only way to complete the case was to keep making payments for a few more months (with money she no longer had) and to pay in her 2007 tax refunds (with money she no longer had). The only way out was to either convert her case to a Chapter 7 case (which would cost time and money she did not have) or to attempt what is called a "hardship discharge."

Simply put, this can be granted when certain conditions are met -- notably that the Debtor can no longer continue in the case because of circumstances beyond her control BUT that she is in all other respects eligible for a discharge. It is an extreme solution and, therefore, not attempted or granted very often.

But my buddy attempted it. He admits that he was not too optimistic, but he attempted it. There was little in the way of opposition to the motion; the Judge and Trustee, however, shared one concern: The use of the 2007 tax refunds in blatant violation of a prior court order.

My buddy says that he stood right up there, took several deep breaths while looking the judge in the eyes, and admitted to the Court that yes, while there was a violated order, there were good (read: humane) reasons for the violation and that in all other respects, she qualified for a hardship discharge. And then he sat down.

The Trustee's attorney then stood and essentially agreed with him, that taken as a whole, this woman deserved to get the help she had requested.

The judge looked at them both and asked, "You mean, you want me to re-write the bankruptcy code to make it 'fair'?" My buddy just smiled at the judge and the Trustee's attorney back-pedaled. The judge smiled back and said, "Well, I've done it before; Motion granted."

My buddy tells me it felt like he had been kicked in the chest; he could hardly breathe. He says that prior to the hearing his client had asked what the magic words were; he told her "Motion granted. If we hear that, we're good." He says he heard her gasp when the judge ruled. By the time they reached the hallway, his client was sobbing in joy, grabbed him in a bear hug, and thanked him for the Christmas present. She called his office afterwards to thank him again.

The joy that woman felt? I have seen it a few times in my own clients. I know exactly what my buddy was feeling.

It is the feeling you get when an elderly woman thanks you for saving her house from foreclosure saying, "This was the first house my husband and I lived in. It's where he died, and where I want to go to sleep for the last time. You saved it for me."

It is the feeling you get when a client drops to his knees in your office and repeats "God bless you. Jesus bless you." Over and over.

It is the feeling you get when a client calls you after a hearing and says she is grateful for your help "against a corrupt society." Who assures you that you are helping people whose lives hang in the balance, and that while the services you provide are often taken for granted, she does not take you for granted.

It does not happen very often, not in Bankruptcy, not in Litigation, not even in Criminal law. Not as often as it should, in my opinion, but them I admit to a certain bias.

It does not happen very often, but it does happen, and you begin to understand a little of King Benjamin's admonition from the Book of Mormon: "And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." Mosiah 2:17.

Due to the nature of the Practice, it does not happen often, but when it does?

It makes a lot of the other crap seem almost worth it.

1 comment:

Peter R. said...

I can't believe no one else has commented on this, so I'll be the first. I really appreciated this post. I mostly have worked for wealthy or government clients, but the few pro bono cases I have taken made it all worthwhile. My first Spanish-speaking client nearly lost custody of her children before we took the case, but it felt so good to get the guardian ad litem thrown off the case and the dad held in contempt for withholding child support. I wish those moments came more often, but when they do they're worth it.