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Program offers bankruptcy assistance for area clients

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Since the economic collapse, it’s no surprise that the number of bankruptcy filings has risen. But the number of pro se filings – people who file for bankruptcy without the use of an attorney – has increased dramatically, and that’s also no surprise. But when a novice tries to navigate the complexities of any bankruptcy proceeding, it can lead to troubles, for the courts and for the individual acting as their own attorney.

While several programs exist to aid in the area of bankruptcies – such as Cooley Law School’s “Bankruptcy Basics” monthly seminar, in conjunction with the Eastern District of Michigan’s Bankruptcy Court, and the Access to Bankruptcy Court (ABC), formed by a diverse group of bankruptcy professionals in the Detroit area – there’s always room on the playing field for more programs to help address the problem of pro se bankruptcy filings.

And the newest is a hybrid amalgamation of those two, called the ABC/Cooley Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project. Simply put, it’s a program that partners real attorneys with Cooley Law School students to help debtors in bankruptcy filings.

Alesia Dobbins, a pro se law clerk in the Eastern District of Michigan Bankruptcy Court, said she sees firsthand the problems debtors have in trying to wind through the bankruptcy process.

“Many of them, who desperately need bankruptcy relief but simply cannot afford an attorney, end up with dismissed cases, or are denied a discharge merely because they did not know all the rules related to filing a bankruptcy,” she said.

Dobbins said ABC has been a great resource for those people to gain access to free legal representation to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls, and now that ABC has teamed up with Cooley, it provides “a wonderful opportunity for law students to get real world experience working with clients and appearing in front of judges and trustees while providing such an urgently needed service to low income individuals.”

According to Bankruptcy Court figures, 390 pro se bankruptcy cases were filed in 2000. That number leaped to 3,493 pro se cases in 2009, dropping to some 2,100 cases in both 2010 and 2011, rising again last year to 2,331 cases. Of course, many more bankruptcy cases were filed by attorneys.

The problem came to the attention of Lauren Rousseau, then-associate dean and a law professor at Cooley’s Auburn Hills campus, through two Cooley students, Laura Lambert and Justin Valencia.

“Both of them had interned at consumer bank law firms, had some exposure to the issue, and the problems it presented to court personnel, and decided it was a way they could give back,” she said.

Rousseau, the students, Dobbins and Leslie Berg, an adjunct professor teaching bankruptcy at Cooley, with the support of the Bankruptcy Committee of the Federal Bar Association, where Berg was co-chair, created a presentation designed to educate consumer debtors, especially the pro se group, about the basics of the bankruptcy process.

And in March 2011, Cooley and the Eastern District of Michigan launched the aptly named “Bankruptcy Basics,” program, which consisted of free seminars presented the second Wednesday of each month from 3-5 p.m. at the downtown Detroit bankruptcy court.

Two Cooley students gave the presentation each month, while a question-and-answer session afterwards is handled by a bankruptcy attorney on a volunteer basis. The program has evolved to include students from not only Cooley’s Auburn Hills campus, but also from the Ann Arbor campus. Rousseau, with assistance from people at each campus, organizes training sessions each term for interested students.

“The program provides students with a wonderful opportunity to hone their presentation skills, learn about the bankruptcy process, and network with bankruptcy professionals,” Rousseau said.

At about the same time, Rousseau became aware of the ABC program and joined its board of directors, which includes Dobbins and Judge Marci McIvor of the Bankruptcy Court. She said both programs were formed to address the same problem. But ABC differed in that local bankruptcy attorneys were involved in providing free legal representation to low-income debtors. ABC is a nonprofit organization that pays participating attorneys a reduced fee to file Chapter 7 cases.

Later, the ABC Board received a grant from the American College of Bankruptcy to establish a bankruptcy clinic in collaboration with a local law school. None expressed a desire to participate, but when Rousseau joined the board, she jumped at the chance to involve Cooley.

“I was very interested in working with ABC to develop some type of program that would enhance the services ABC provides to low-income debtors while also providing Cooley law students with experience working with bankruptcy cases and clients,” Rousseau said.

Working with the board and Cooley administration, the ABC/Cooley Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project was launched last September. It incorporates a panel of volunteer attorneys, each of whom is paired with a Cooley student to work on a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. Attorneys each get a “token” amount of $200 training stipend, Rousseau said, and supervise the student throughout the case, from beginning to end.

Students involved in the program receive two days of intensive training in the bankruptcy process, documents and schedules, training by Berg and Lambert, before being paired with an attorney. Rousseau refers the cases to the pairing after a review, and keeps tabs on it. She said the student performs the bulk of the work in preparing the case after meeting with the attorney and the client, and may even represent the client before the bankruptcy trustee while the attorney stands by to assist them.

Fifteen students each from the Auburn Hills and Ann Arbor campuses are selected, but each term, a new batch will be chosen among the many students who are interested in the program, Rousseau said. And so far, it’s been a hit, for the students and attorneys as well, who have provided “consistently positive feedback.”

The program may be expanded to include more students and more attorneys in the future, Rousseau added.

In addition, ABC has become a partner in the “Bankruptcy Basics” seminars as well, she said. And the most favorable responses have come from the debtors, who have appreciated the help they’ve been given.

Tracy Clark, ABC president, citing statistics from an opinion by Bankruptcy Court Judge Phillip Shefferly in one case, said the likelihood for success in Chapter 7 cases increased when an attorney was involved, and plunged when the debtor filed pro se, showing there was a compelling need for programs like ABC.

“Many people in the Detroit metropolitan area are in dire financial straights, but cannot afford an attorney to assist them with a bankruptcy filing,” McIvor said. “Without access to an attorney, people either struggle, and frequently fail, to navigate the bankruptcy system on their own, or turn to unqualified individuals who assist them for a fee.”

McIvor said, “ABC does a great service to the community by providing free legal counsel to these people…(and)…deserving debtors are able to complete a bankruptcy proceeding and obtain a fresh start contemplated by the law.”

Anything that helps debtors get a handle on their financial plight and provides attorneys a way to offer pro bono help is a worthwhile thing, Rousseau said. In different ways, each of these programs does just that.

“I tremendously appreciate the efforts of our volunteer attorneys,” Rousseau said. “The students do a lot of the work, but it’s a skill to supervise the students, and these attorneys take this on to help low income debtors, and help educate our next generation of lawyers.”

Rayun “Yiny” Yang, a Cooley student who is working on the ABC/Cooley Pro Bono Bankruptcy program, echoes the remarks.

“I’ve always tried to get involved with pro bono programs at Cooley because it can give me real hands-on experience outside of classroom, and allow me to apply what I learned into real practice, and see what real attorneys do on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “And this project can help out lot of people who are in need of legal help.”

Yang, 24, of South Korea, hopes one day to launch a career on the East Coast in transactional legal work, either in corporate law, commercial transactions, litigations and contracts after graduation a year from now.

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