I was very much a child of the 1960s — I was active in the student movement in college and went to law school because I thought that would give me some skills to work towards social and economic justice. I was fortunate to receive some truly excellent clinical training in how to be a poor people’s lawyer — and it’s a good thing I did, because my first job at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia was in an office of three or four young lawyers with maybe five years’ total legal experience among us, trying to serve a large part of the city, handling all types of cases.
When I first got to CLS, there were a number of companies that were notorious for putting 30-40 family homes up for sheriff’s sale every month (which you could do without a mortgage, just based on a contract) and then purchasing and renting them out as a slumlord. I ended up engineering a campaign of lawsuits against them over the next six years, which, with the help of the enactment of the Bankruptcy Code in 1978, eventually put them out of business.
As that case was winding down, I realized that the newly-enacted Bankruptcy Code could be useful in resolving a wide range of legal services issues — welfare, Social Security, family law, housing and utilities, and other consumer cases — and I wrote an article in Clearinghouse Review outlining how it could be done. This touched off what has turned into a lifelong interest in using bankruptcy law to protect low-income families. My CLS colleagues and I started using the Bankruptcy Code in all of these ways and ended up winning a number of precedent-setting cases; after a couple of years I kind of became the legal services bankruptcy expert. I also got connected with NCLC around that same time — I think my first NCLC Conference was in 1976 — and I have been writing and revising the NCLC manual Consumer Bankruptcy Law and Practice for almost 40 years.
I was involved in the founding of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) in the early 1990s, which allowed bankruptcy attorneys to engage in legislative advocacy on a much larger scale than we could in our work with legal services. One of the things I feel most proud of was my work getting the law changed so that poor people could file bankruptcy without paying a filing fee. For a long time, you could be too poor to file for bankruptcy, until finally in 1994 Congress passed a pilot program that allowed waiver of the fee below a certain income threshold, a change that became permanent through the 2005 bankruptcy bill.
Right now, we’re focusing on trying to increase the debts you can discharge through bankruptcy, particularly student loans. So many people are carrying around mountains of student debt that they’ll never be able to get rid of, and it’s unconscionable that bankruptcy can’t clear the slate for people who need it. One of the things I appreciate about bankruptcy law — and consumer law in general — is that it’s allowed me to learn and pursue new strategies throughout my career, and know that I can make a difference in people’s lives.