“When I was a kid, my father would constantly say that Household Finance — which was a subprime lender back in the day — ran his life. I have memories of my parents being harassed by debt collectors. And, I hear echoes of my mom’s voice when clients come into my office and tell me their stories and how worried they are about money. A debt collector once told my mom that he would call immigration if she didn’t pay.
Being oppressed economically puts people in a place of fear — fear that they won’t be able to put food on the table, or a roof over their family’s heads — and this fear is heightened when creditors or debt collectors are using intimidation and harassment to collect a debt or are constantly calling.
About ten years ago, I received a frantic phone call from a middle-aged Latina woman who was being harassed by a company that had extended her an auto title loan. Her husband had recently left her and she was alone raising her three children. She was falling behind on all of her payments. The last thing she could lose was her car because she needed it to get to work. When she got to my office, she collapsed into tears and told me that the title lender had been calling her place of employment, and telling all her coworkers that she was in debt. Earlier that week the lender had served her at work with a lawsuit.
At some point during our conversation, she said that she didn’t feel like she could go on and she’d be better off dead. She confided in me that she was contemplating suicide. She recently told me that she had actually attempted suicide before visiting me.1 Anyhow, it was at that moment that I forgot about the law. I saw someone who was wounded, and needed medical help. Though I didn’t know how I was going to take care of the lawsuit, I told her not to worry and that I would help. I remember saying that I could handle the law, but I couldn’t take care of her mental health. She promised me that she would immediately seek medical care, which she did. The lawsuit ended in a successful result in her favor. I still remember how relieved and grateful she was when it was all over. I’ve stayed in touch with her over the years, and was able to watch her pull her life back together. It was an amazing transformation.
As a lawyer, you must have a human response to people who are in pain, because invariably the people who call on you will end up sharing the emotional pain they are feeling. If there is an ideal that brought you to law school — helping people, fighting for the underdog, holding the powerful accountable — you can live that dream by practicing consumer law and working on behalf of people who have been victimized by an economic system that’s arrayed against them. Our brothers and sisters need help overcoming the economic burdens that are holding them back. You can be the person who takes the time to learn their story, and takes action to make that happen.
1 My former client gave me permission to share this story.