GOING SOLO: Young attorney expands his bankruptcy practice after six solo years

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Michigan State University College of Law alumnus Jeff Mapes thinks an individual bankruptcy practice lends itself well to solo practice.

“There are not a whole lot of court appearances in most bankruptcy cases, and once you have a good system down, you can really get things moving,” Mapes says.

“Of course this only works if you know bankruptcy law well, because there are a lot of different ways you can resolve a case. But you don’t need to have this whole big firm behind you most of the time, either.”

Statistics seem to back him up. Though the large law firms do work on corporate level bankruptcies, individuals facing bankruptcy most often are served by lawyers
who hang out their own shingles.

Some well-known Internet advisors write that bankruptcy is the best kind of practice for those who want to go solo.

And Mapes, who received his law license in 2007, loves the work.

“Frankly, what I like about the practice area itself is just the community of attorneys – all of us get along because we have to, we all need to figure out a common solution. We have a Federal Bar conference up north every year, and I’ve developed good relationships with all of the creditors’ attorneys,” he says.

Clearly, Mapes derives satisfaction from helping his clients as well. “It’s one of those rare fields where the clients are generally happy at the end. They come to you with a problem and you’re able to fix it.”

He also works with students who are under a crushing load of debt — “it’s tough to see,” he says — and tries to avoid solutions that are just “kicking the can down the road.”

Mapes went to East Grand Rapids High School, got a B.A. in History from Kalamazoo College, then received his J.D. with honors from Michigan State University College of Law.

He started out at a small medical malpractice firm, but there was not enough work to keep him busy; he then partnered with a law school friend for a short time, but ultimately decided to strike out on his own.

“I talked it over with my wife Katherine, and we decided it was best for me to open my own practice. I started out about six years ago, just me in a tiny office. I didn’t have a secretary, but I did have a secretary’s desk with one of my wife’s sweaters over the back of the chair,” he says, smiling. “But eventually it grew.”

After a while, Mapes brought in his wife to help organize the business, an action he regards to this day as one of his best decisions. Mapes comments, “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without her; she’s probably more responsible for the success of the practice than I am.”

The solo firm is doing well enough now that it no longer remains a solo firm: George J. George, who graduated from Mapes’s alma mater, MSU College of Law, in 2012, has joined the practice.

Mapes has expanded to offices in Holland, Kalamazoo, and Lansing primarily, he says, because he felt the market in Grand Rapids was saturated.

Rather than spend a lot of money advertising in a crowded field, he turned to getting business in other cities, especially along the lakeshore. This has worked well for him.

“To go from nothing to fairly successful, in terms of numbers of bankruptcies filed in the Western District of Michigan... we’ve been very fortunate,” he comments.

Recently, Mapes received a lot of publicity from a tongue-in-cheek open letter he wrote to the owner of a business, Dieseltec, who said he would refuse to offer his services to openly gay customers.

Most readers assumed that Mapes had sent the letter to mlive.com himself, but he says the news media picked it up on their own from his law firm blog.

“I feel very strongly that you need to treat everyone as a human being and as an equal,” he said. “It seemed like this guy was telling people, ‘Just because you do this I’m going to essentially write you off and treat you as second class citizens.’ It doesn’t help our community.”

The letter reads in part: “This is certainly an unorthodox business strategy, and perhaps it will work for you, but I get the feeling you will need a bankruptcy attorney pretty soon and I wanted to offer my services. Like you, I am white, male, Christian, a business owner, and a gun owner. Unlike you, I provide services to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation because it doesn't matter to me.”

While the comments on the Mlive republication were predictably divided, the top Google search results are either neutral or admiring, one even calling the response “brilliant.”

He says that he heard from a number of attorneys who looked on his letter favorably. “I did get a lot of support and thanks for posting. OutPro [the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce-affiliated group which “promotes a welcoming culture in West Michigan for LGBT professionals”] was very supportive and thankful for it. What really I think meant the most to me was that one of the clients I had a few years ago who is gay sent me a letter of appreciation for how comfortable they felt at our offices,” Mapes said.

Another thing Mapes feels strongly about is mandated continuing legal education. “I think the State Bar is doing a massive disservice in not requiring ongoing legal education. I have a lot of family and friends who work in professions that are certified, and they have to prove every few years that they still know what they’re doing,”
he says. “There are a lot of attorneys who think they can just buy a computer program and be bankruptcy lawyers. They file, but they have zero knowledge and they don’t represent their clients well. It’s not malpractice, but it’s certainly not good.”

As a counterbalance, Mapes has become Board Certified in Consumer Bankruptcy, something fewer than ten attorneys in the Western District have done. “It was rigorous, there was a day-long test, but it makes me feel good that it serves as an indication I’ll do a good job for clients,” he comments.

Mapes has few, if any, regrets. “I think the thing is, most people who have successful solo practices were like me. Sometimes you just jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down,” he says.

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