My Chapter 7 Story
By Jonathan Petts
My experience with consumer bankruptcy began in 2005. Having finished my first year at Penn Law, I showed up at the Bankruptcy Court in Brooklyn expecting to find this legal niche depressing. But I found the opposite to be true. For the “honest but unfortunate debtor,” Chapter 7 often meant a new lease on life, erasing medical debts and credit card bills, and ending harassing bill collector calls.
I spent the first half of my time interning for Judge Elizabeth Stong, writing memos and observing hearings. I spent the other half in the clerk’s office, where I assisted the flood of individuals trying to file for Chapter 7 before BAPCPA became law.
As rewarding as I found the work, helping pro se debtors was also intensely frustrating. There were endless forms. They asked duplicative and irrelevant questions designed for large companies, not for low-income Brooklynites. During that summer, I saw many debtors never file a petition because they were too overwhelmed to wade through the forms.
After law school, I clerked for two more bankruptcy judges, Judge Allan Gropper in New York and Judge Benjamin Goldgar in Chicago. And I went on to practice business bankruptcy at two large NYC firms, Milbank and Morrison & Foerster, working on large corporate debtor cases.
Writing briefs for the cases covered in the Wall Street Journal was exhilarating at first. I was working with some of the best restructuring lawyers in the business. It all felt very Hollywood, at least the lawyer’s version. But I never found the same sense of satisfaction working for large companies as I did in the clerk’s office or with the chapter 7 clients that I continued to represent pro bono. I could help those debtors transform their balance sheets, their emotions, and their hopes for the future, all in three hours. Now that’s ROI.
Our nonprofit is expanding access to chapter 7 for all those people that I wasn’t able to help in the clerk’s office. We’re also helping all of the others that want and need bankruptcy, but don’t have the courage to show up at the clerk’s office in the first place.