A few minutes before sitting down to write, I received an email from the Bankruptcy Bar Association’s Pro Se Clinic administrator. She advised that we have 12 registrants for tomorrow’s Pro Se Clinic. Peter Kelly, our Pro Se Clinic Chair, along with Joe Grant and myself, have waited a long time to have a joint presentation of our Pro Se Clinic, but the largest audience we have seen in several months has been only 2 individuals, one of whom had already filed. The Pro Se Clinics are so important. This is where we can impress upon the attendees the importance of retaining counsel. We describe some of the pitfalls and present questions to attendees – taken right out of the Schedules and Statements, but that can’t be answered by anyone in the room. We see general bewilderment when discussing Schedule C. Every now and then, we get a question from someone who moved to our District a bit less than 2 years ago and they need to know whether they have the option to elect Federal Exemptions. In fact, most Pro Se filers (prospectively Pro Se), have no idea how to properly allocate exemptions even where the prospective debtor knows that they can only take Florida Exemptions. Then, we always seem to get the chapter 13 questions and these are the tough ones; but by the time we have shown our attendees how exemptions work in determining how much is to be repaid to unsecured creditors, we’ve lost our audience. Then come questions about “value”. Everyone knows how important it is for a debtor’s assets to be properly valued and how the Means Test controls what the debtor can and cannot do. You would be surprised at how many attendees at our clinics do not understand that we view value as a function of it’s salability. Technically, we don’t know “true value” in bankruptcy unless we have sold the asset via 363. The interconnections between various Schedules and Statements are easy for us to see, as bankruptcy professionals and our uniformly-super staff, but what about the prospective Pro Se filer? It is difficult for all of us when we are involved in a case where the debtor does not have counsel. While we all extend every possible courtesy and our court does the same, twice, three times, maybe four times over, a defective case filing is a nightmare. Arguably, those who bear the brunt of the “problem” cases are our Panel Trustees. A “no asset” case is a no asset case and the trustees who are then working for free, apart from that meager slice of the filing fees, are losing time and money that can be better-spent on properly filed asset cases. This is why our Pro Se Clinics should be supported and at every opportunity by our Bench and Bar and by our Panel Trustees. Thankfully, almost all of our Panel Trustees refer “problem” Pro Se debtors to the BBA’s Pro Bono Program. Intervention by our BBA volunteer lawyers saves the day for everyone.
We have been able to increase our Pro Se Clinic attendance by distributing online flyers containing the calendar for all of our monthly Clinic dates along with links for all of the upcoming Zoom sessions. Judging from the 12 registrations we have for tomorrow’s Clinic, our outreach has worked. Many thanks to Joe Falzone for making this happen.
I want to conclude this edition of Pro Bono Corner by commenting on “the news”. This morning’s Washington Post headlined “U.S. may hit recession in next year, more experts say”. Most of us remember our Economics 101 and 102 in college. Now, tempered by our knowledge and expertise in bankruptcy law, our view of the economy and the forces that appear to have a direct impact on our U.S. Economy appear to be taking-on a new appearance. We have never seen gas prices at this level. Inflation is out of control and this writer does not believe that inflation can be “controlled” by adjustments in the Fed. Rate. Keynesian theory taught us that every dollar spent by a consumer, becomes a dollar for the business to then spend on capital improvements, wages, energy, materials, taxes, investor returns on their investments and so on. The theory presupposes that earned wages will then be returned to the business sector through spending. People are beginning to pull-back now. Our markets have taken a dive and the real estate market is anything but “real”. The fact that we are in a period of worldwide inflation would appear to be a strong indicator of how deep we are, right now. This writer believes we will be in a recession sometime in the next year, perhaps sooner, but the road to that point is all downhill for the economy. It’s a no-growth, no-spending proposition. Our economy is shrinking.
Whatever your view might be of our future landscape, be prepared for many filings to come; first from the consumers and next from the producers. That means we need to be prepared to provide assistance to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. It’s the time to start giving back if you haven’t already. If you have, then please continue your invaluable service to our citizens in our District. We have so many heroes amongst us. Every bankruptcy attorney reading this epistle should be a nominee for our Chief Judge’s annual Pro Bono Award. I hope to see you on the next set of nominees selected for the top Award from our Chief Judge, in the best U.S. Bankruptcy Court District in the United States, bar none.
Be well and stay safe.
This excerpt was written for Court House Beacon News.