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I Call BS . . . (on everyone, myself very much included)

“I call BS”

The students of the high school in Florida who suffered that mass school shooting earlier this year adopted the battle cry “I call BS” in the face of politicians’ empty promises to stop gun violence and to stop taking money from the gun industry.  If anyone dared tell the students they would work to make a difference and acted in a way that said they did not intend to, they called out the BS.

Good for them.  Because we are too nice and we don’t call out each other’s BS enough.  And because of that many of us never get out of our own way.

We all do it—we all have some BS we are hiding behind.

“I want to lose weight.”

“I know I should exercise more.”

“I have no money.”

All true statements for many of us.

But I call BS.

If you want something, work for it. If you know exercising is good for you and you don’t do it, then start.  You say you have no money, but do you really keep track of what you spend your money on?

I don’t call you out on enough of your BS.  I hear you say you want things but you don’t do what you have to do to have those things.  Please just be honest about WHAT YOU WANT MORE than the things you say you want.

If you want to lose weight, but you love chocolate chip cookies, and you keep eating the chocolate chip cookies, then you want the cookies more than you want to lose weight.  So don’t BS me about wanting to lose weight.

If you know you should exercise more but go home at night, eat dinner and then flop down on the couch and turn on the TV, then you want to watch TV more than you want to exercise.  So don’t BS me about not having the time or not being “able” to exercise.

You say you have no money but you stop to buy a coffee every day and buy your lunch at work and go shopping for clothes a couple of times per month or lend friends and family members the money you do have.  So don’t tell me you don’t have money—that stuff adds up.

I sound really harsh here because I have been spouting my own BS for a couple of years—I say that I want to help more and more people and have a large law firm but I haven’t done the work it takes to get more clients.  I’ve been BS-ing myself, my husband, my staff and even the homeowners out there who can’t find their way to me because I haven’t done what I need to do for them to know I’m right here, ready and able to help.

That BS stops now.  No more pretending to want something but then not taking the steps to have what I want.  No more saying one thing and doing another.  I invite you to call me out if you hear BS from me.

You ready to join me in a BS-free life?

Living Her Dream

Quite often I find myself in conversations with people who say things like, “When __ happens, then I will do ___.”  For example, “When I retire, then I will play more golf,” or “When I earn more money, then I will take a vacation,” or “When I have more time, then I will volunteer.”  I have a few of those on my list too.

I have a friend, well actually someone I would feel lucky if she called me a friend, whom I met many years ago at a networking event and we have seen each other at various events and meetings over the years.  I knew that she spoke some French and German and did things like organized get-togethers for French-speakers and German-speakers, and that she played piano and organ.  She is also a real estate agent and that is how I met her.  But unlike all the other small business owners I have met over the years, she isn’t waiting until her business “takes off,” or until she makes a certain amount of money, to do the things she enjoys and that would make her life and the lives of others better.  As small as it seems to get a bunch of people together to practice speaking French once per month, she takes the time to do it.  She doesn’t see it as taking time away from working and making money and therefore something she shouldn’t do or can’t do or that she should wait to do.  It’s important to her, it’s important to others, and it’s something she isn’t waiting to do.

I learned recently that she has added yet another interesting and generous activity to her weekly routine—she plays the piano and organizes a choir for people who get lunch at a particular soup kitchen in Hartford.  The meal is served at noon, she arrives at 11 and anyone else who is there who wants to sing can join the group.  The first week, back in May, there were apparently only about four reluctant participants.  But as the weeks passed, and she continued to appear and warm up the piano, more and more people have been joining.  One week there were over 20 singers!  They also recently sang in State House Square and Kathleen Malloy, the governor’s wife, joined them.  After each session now, the singers tell her how much they enjoy the choir, how it makes them feel good and especially after meeting Mrs. Malloy, how they actually feel like someone, for the first time in their lives.

What is also interesting about this is she had no idea what the result would be, how the option of singing for a little while before eating lunch would affect the patrons of the soup kitchen, how it would change their lives or hers.  But she did it anyways.  She stepped into the unknown and just went with it.

Just an hour per week, and she is making such an impact.  Without concern that she could be out showing a house to a client, and maybe making a little more money if she worked instead of volunteered.  She isn’t waiting to live her dream, she is doing it now.

If only all of us took an hour per week to do what makes us each feel happy, something we know is doing good for ourselves and others, what would our communities look like?  How much better would our little world be?

I’m sharing this, instead of my usual stuff about foreclosure and mortgages and the headaches of being in debt because I hope highlighting what my friend is doing will inspire you to not wait to do the things you want to do until ___ happens.

Let me know what you think, let me know if you are already living your dream, or what you plan to do instead of waiting for the right moment, the right amount of time or having enough money.

99 Homes

A week or so back, I was at a conference table with another lawyer and a client. The subject was, of course, debt and a pending foreclosure. I’d known the attorney for some time, always thought of him as a sort of analytic, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ kind of guy.

So, he shocked me when he, emotionally, started talking about the movie 99 Homes, several years old now, but … well, here’s what I wrote about it after it came out:

99 Homes is a kick in the stomach. It’s visceral, it’s brutal.

It sarahblogbegins with a court hearing in Orlando, Florida. A twenty second hearing during which a character, alone before a judge in a chaotic courtroom is told his paperwork is not in order and even if it was it’s too late and he will be evicted by the bank in the morning. Quick, devastatingly direct.

The subsequent eviction scene was tense and just heart-ripping. It was hard to watch.

Something really hit me in the brief moments before the sheriffs come –  it’s a quick, easy to overlook shot, though that it’s repeated later in the movie, a few times actually, albeit in different forms.

This is it: the homeowner’s sitting at a kitchen table buried in paperwork. He’s frantically burrowing through it while calling attorneys on his cell phone. It’s crystal clear he’s ignored dozens – at least – notices from the bank, court, and the sheriff’s office.

Later, as the movie takes some dark turns and heads toward the ’99’ homes of the title, it’s obvious that most of the people Michael Shannon (great in this, as in almost everything else) is evicting have done exactly the same thing – they’ve ignored notices, even ones stuck on their front doors by day-glo red tape.

99-homes-18It’s a theme I’ve explored more than a few times and really thought I had a handle on. But seeing it … was hard. There’s a natural reaction to wanting bad news to go away without having to do anything. There’s the depression that hits, the ‘nah, this isn’t really happening’ denial … well, really most of the steps normally associated with the grieving process.

Except here, as so vividly shown in the film, there is no acceptance, just sheriffs and a bank rep at the door to wrest the home away.

I’m still a little rocked by this but I’m pretty sure the next time someone hesitates before hiring me I’ll just tell them to watch 99 Homes and get back to me.

My First Solo

It was twelve years ago today, October 2, 2006, that I went solo.  I actually didn’t have much of a plan. I had obtained a position reviewing documents for large class actions which I could do from home on my computer. That was going to pay enough to pay my bills. That’s as far as I had gotten with my plan.

I had been working in consumer protection for four years, helping all kinds of people out of all kinds of bad deals, protecting them from harassing debt collectors, unwinding their complicated identity theft problems, and recovering money taken by home improvement contractors, car dealers and even dating services.  But even as fulfilling as that was, there was something missing. I didn’t know what, I just knew I needed a change. I didn’t really look around for other jobs, but I found the document review opportunity and thought it would allow me to rethink my path as an attorney.

Within a week or two, my old boss called asking if I was interested in helping all the people that called his firm looking for help defending against credit card and medical collection.  So I shifted from being the lawyer that brought suit to being the lawyer that defended clients in court. And no one else was really doing that with any regularity.

Almost exactly two years later, though, the economy dramatically shifted when the real estate bubble burst and the country went into recession.  The need for lawyers helping homeowners in foreclosure increased dramatically and as I had already handled a few foreclosures for homeowners, I was in position to take on more of these cases.  Now I have the largest foreclosure defense practice in the state.

This did not come easy.  Helping a homeowner save their home from foreclosure is labor-intensive, document and paperwork intensive and takes a lot of time and patience, both on my part and the part of the homeowner.  I have had to hire staff to handle the paperwork, answer the phones and manage the office. This was a scary process- I used to work alone in a spare bedroom, then I rented a small office, but now I need space for four employees, and then some.  This all needs to be paid for. Everyone wonders how I do it: “How do you get paid if your clients can’t pay their mortgage?”

Good question.  Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from growing this business is to figure out what clients really want.  When you think about it, people pay for the things they want. If they REALLY want that Starbucks coffee, they will have the money to pay for it.  If they REALLY want a Lexus car, they will find a way to pay for it. And if they REALLY want help in court when their home is in foreclosure, they will make sure to pay their lawyer for that help.  

I did assume for a long time that everyone wanted to save their house, or that everyone who called me wanted to pay for legal services.  I’ve been working on how to have the conversation to figure out what people really WANT. I’ve learned it’s OK to not want to keep your house, and it’s OK if people don’t think paying for a lawyer is worth it.  I want to work with the people who REALLY want legal help from me, people who value having a lawyer by their side, a lawyer who will explain the process to them, who will walk them through each step and clarify what is going on in court so they aren’t so confused, don’t feel helpless, and aren’t spending any more sleepless nights over their foreclosure.  

Even better are the clients who know we will solve their legal problem and who want to do better in the future.  People who are motivated to manage their money so they will NEVER be in foreclosure again, and who will have savings and a retirement plan and a future to look forward to.  Because I’ve learned it was never the foreclosure that was the problem, that was just the symptom of many decisions over the years that led to an inability to pay the mortgage.  I can treat the symptoms, but the fulfilling part is working together with clients to cure the underlying problem.

Picturing Foreclosure

Who do you picture when you hear the word Foreclosure?  Do you picture people sitting around piles of cash they have saved up because they haven’t paid their mortgage? Do you picture people going on vacation on the money they saved by not paying their mortgage?  Do you think they are sleeping soundly on a bed of sweet-smelling flowers and wake up to rainbows?

Maybe that’s what you picture, since we have been trained, as good Americans, to work hard and pay our bills.  So if someone isn’t paying their bills they must really be enjoying all the “extra” money they have hanging around.  If we all believe that paying your bills = good and not paying bills = bad, then of course you think there is some benefit to the person not paying their bills, that they have “gotten away with something,” and are getting rich in the process.

After years and years of working with people in debt, I can tell you not being able to pay bills comes with nothing but gray hair and sleepless nights.

I’ve been trying to figure out who is more likely to be in foreclosure so that I can “target” my advertising better.  I want to focus my advertising time, energy and money on that group. The problem is, there is no ONE group more likely to be in foreclosure.  I have helped doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, landscapers, painters, contractors, nurses, teachers, retirees, the disabled–you name it—who have all fallen on hard (or even harder) times.  The only common denominator is owning a home. Whether your mortgage payment is $3000 per month or $900 per month, your home is your castle.  

And hardship doesn’t discriminate.  

I have a list a mile long of the terrible things that happened to my clients before they fell behind on their bills, all which fall under the main categories of unemployment, divorce, disability or injury, having to care for someone sick, or death of a spouse or family member.  That stuff can happen to anyone.

Believe me no one who isn’t paying their mortgage fat, happy and sitting on a pile of cash.  They come to my office crying, depressed, sleep deprived and arguing with their spouse because of the stress that reduced household income and inability to pay bills causes.  Don’t think for a minute that the shame and embarrassment is any less for the house painter than the doctor, or that it’s any easier for the real estate agent than the nurse to reach out for help.

I was talking to a friend today who just went through a major health crisis, which got worse while he was in denial about the seriousness of his condition before finally going to his doctor.  His takeaway is that he feels we should all be talking about our issues and how they affect us and make us feel. He specifically said he’s seeing a counselor to get over the stress he experienced while getting urgent medical treatment, and he thinks the more we all discuss that the better we will all be, and that we will be more likely to reach out for help when we need it sooner.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve been saying that for years, I even had the Got Debt? logo imprinted on my business cards for years because when I showed it to people it would make them smile and more likely to discuss money problems.  In my experience, the sooner someone reaches out for help with their financial issues the more options they have. Nine times out of ten I’m told by clients speaking to me has helped them sleep much better immediately.  At the very least, reaching out for help sooner can make you feel like you’re sleeping on a bed of flowers.

A Day in Court

I was in court a few days ago, a woman was there, representing herself, trying to tell the court that she was about to sell her house and the foreclosure ‘could stop now.’ She was too late. She tried explaining that the bank told her she’d be fine and needn’t worry about what was going on in court as long as the house was about to be sold. It didn’t matter, she was too late . . . by about a week.

More:

A different take in foreclosure court: usually the judge takes cases where attorneys have entered appearances – ostensibly to try and curb expenses, (who wants to pay a lawyer to sit in court all morning?) – but today, he decided to take homeowners representing themselves first – the better so they don’t miss work.

A lot of homeowners representing themselves don’t show up, but they did today.  So, I sat through foreclosure story after foreclosure story and a lot of pretty solid explanations why homes shouldn’t be foreclosed on.

o-GAME-OF-THRONES-TYRION-facebook
  It really is no fun to be in court by yourself….

One man explained he fell behind after his house sustained storm damage. His insurance company assured him he would be reimbursed in full for the repairs. Two checks came and he paid the contractors but then, for some reason, the bank held the last $19,000 check.

He is in the beginning of a foreclosure while still trying to work things out with the bank. That’s it, he, by himself, is working with his bank, only, to get money released and start to ‘take care of the mess.’

The judge set a date and if the homeowner doesn’t resolve the problem in time the bank will own his house. The poor guy has the attitude of someone who just can’t believe that the problem won’t get resolved, that the bank won’t do the right thing. Eventually.

Other families came before the judge with different stories based on the same theme – the bank said ‘x’ and they’ll be following up … soon.

All of them now have foreclosure dates.

I wrote a few weeks ago about where the banks’ interest lay. To tersely sum up that post – the banks do not share many interests with regular people.

The general rule is once you don’t feel your bank is helping you or listening to you, you need to stop seeking help and advice from them.  I mean, if if you were arrested, would you ask the cops for help?  I think we have been trained from all the law shows on TV to know there’s an adversarial relationship between the police and someone who has been arrested (even if the person is innocent).  What TV hasn’t taught us – because how un-sexy would a show about foreclosure court be – is that the banks and mortgage lenders are the cops and homeowners have the right to remain silent and have the right to seek the advice of an attorney.  People who are arrested know that without an attorney they are likely to lose some liberties- likely to spend time in jail.  People in foreclosure are also at risk of losing similar liberties- like the right to own their homes- if they don’t seek out the advice of an attorney.

So please, don’t be standing in front of a judge before it occurs to you to check with a lawyer.

Foreclosure Ten Years After the Collapse

Lehman Brothers collapsed ten years ago this week triggering the Recession, the effects of which are still lingering. I, certainly, see them almost every day.

The spate of foreclosures that closely followed Lehman and AIG’s collapses are still clogging courts across the U.S.. According to a few recent reports I’ve read, foreclosure filings won’t peak for another two years. All told, that’s at a dozen years of misery for a significant percentage of Connecticut homeowners.

The years since the collapse also happened to coincide – almost exactly – with the most prolific, almost instantaneous, exchange of information in human history.

So, it’s no surprise the Internet is alive with conspiracy theories about mortgages and foreclosures  – conspiracies involving banks, mortgage lenders, government entities, brokerage firms, real estate investment companies, hedge funds, foreclosure law firms, and a host more.

An entire industry has arisen around these theories, complete with handy solutions to ‘fix’ your foreclosure, maybe even get a ‘free house’ out of the deal  – a favorite phrase. Many of the sites offering these also offer a vast index of links to get you started. They usually start out free, then . . . well, you know.

This stuff is out there, they’re up there in the Google search rankings and pretty hard to miss, and, as far as I can see, have resulted in one, two max, ‘free homes’ in twelve years and millions of foreclosure filings. The lottery has better odds . . . I’ll also note that in one of those cases the legal fees – the case went to a state supreme court – exceeded the value of the home. By a lot.

What the preponderance of these sites, and all the ‘magic-erase-your-debt’ company sites, really does is bury the lawyers and court services and everyone else that can really help while obscuring the legitimate issues and solutions of the for89a3c0192640c5b0f17b47e53441975declosure process.

Case in point, a large foreclosure firm filed against a homeowner in southeastern Connecticut about a year ago. The homeowner skipped a response in state court and went straight to Federal District Court with a complaint that the court kindly referred to a ‘somewhat repetitive, verbose, and dense.’

The homeowner’s complaint was straight off several self-help websites. It attacked the ‘system’ while ignoring the nuts and bolts. The district court was not unsympathetic to some piece of the argument, tried several times to direct the homeowner toward something legally solid (the court, in fact, did everything but highlight the relevant passages in neon yellow), failed each time as the plaintiff merely regurgitated their first – and only – argument. Endlessly.

The homeowners missed the golden opportunities offered by the court; the foreclosure firm made a half a dozen procedural errors in their pursuit of the state foreclosure action that the homeowners – guided by the web-based conspiracy crowd – missed in their attempt to slay the giant.

After a long and tortuous process, the homeowners lost; the foreclosure firm touted it as a notable, precedent setting win on various industry web sites. (Every side is entitled to their own illusions).

Maybe there was (and is) a conspiracy (s), certainly a lot of really bad things happened to take down the economy. The thing is: none of that matters – the foreclosure process is not the place to blow the lid off any of that. It’s the place to work to either keep your home or stay in it as long as possible while you rearrange your life.

These websites and self-help programs offer a narrative for a confusing, stressful time. They do not offer realistic  solutions for going to court to defend a foreclosure.

They’re not going to save your house, they’re not going to keep you in the house while you plan, they’re not going to guide you through the pros and cons of each path, they’re not going to help you make an informed decision, and they sure aren’t going to present your best face to the Judge.

Foreclosure and Empathy

To paraphrase one of the five worst* people who ever lived, ‘when something really bad happens to one person, it’s a tragedy; when it happens to a million, it’s a statistic.’

360_1929_crash_1028This is certainly true of foreclosures. At least today.

I bring this up because I am sometimes asked why I expend such time and energy defending foreclosure actions. I say sometimes because it’s only occasionally verbally stated, usually it’s expressed via ‘that look.’

‘That look’ – a slight crinkling of the eyebrows, a thin, quick frown, maybe a brief tilt of the head when I say what I do.

Unless, of course, they have been through foreclosure themselves or had family or friends involved. Then I get a knowing nod, smile.

Why? Because years ago, before I graduated high school, foreclosures were something that happened to ‘other people’ and in virtual secrecy. They were much, much rarer on the court calendars than they are today. And, it probably took a lot more to get a case to court. Banks and mortgage companies were much more likely to be local – another word for approachable. You could talk to your banker, lender, face-to-face, work things out.

Foreclosures then were small tragedies that happened in the very occasional neighborhood.

The financial meltdown of 2007-8 changed that. In months, millions of homeowners were at risk and failing quickly. Very, very few local banks and lenders exist anymore, corporations and computers took over years ago. Out of necessity, the foreclosure process became industrialized.

The people in the long lines and crowded hallways in the courthouses have become statistics. In the eight years since the meltdown the two largest foreclosure firms in the Greater Hartford area have filed over 70,000 foreclosure cases. And counting.

The great tragedy with that is individuals are lost. Completely. A file is a file is a statistic – win, lose, draw, but close the case.

So, when I get ‘that look’ I try to bring it back to the first or second person, away from that horrible third person ‘them.’ The easiest, most effective way is to point out the effect of this crisis on neighborhoods – “Well, would you want a foreclosed house in your neighborhood?  How about more than one?”

That takes it back to the first person pretty quickly. I can’t enforce empathy, but I can provide it, though I wish I didn’t have to.

When Geoffrey Owens Played a Lawyer . . .

I posted something about Geoffrey Owens and ‘job shaming’ on Facebook last week because I saw in the ‘story’ of Geoffrey’s job at Trader Joe’s something I see regularly working with people going through foreclosure: the ‘debt shaming’ I write about often. It seemed especially poignant as all this was precipitated by Owens losing his steady income source, The Cosby Show residuals that went away when the show was pulled from syndication because of the sexual abuse charges leveled at Cosby.

Just like many of my clients, an unexpected change in income had a disastrous effect.

All that reminded me of a great Geoffrey Owens role as one of my favorite TV lawyers of all time: Gerald Watkins Mayfield in HBO’s Divorce.

Divorce is the story of a successful business woman, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her not quite as successful husband, Robert (Thomas Hayden Church) living in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, a pretty, upscale town on the Hudson River an hour or so north of New York City. The town, by the way, is pretty much a character.

sarahbloghboObviously, they have marital problems. They go through all the motions of therapy and reconciliation and mediation, it’s obvious six show or so in that they need to divorce and it’s going to get ugly.

They need lawyers. Robert’s not the type to ask around or spend time on Google, or, indeed, doing anything proactive. Eventually, though, a friend introduces him to  a relative who’s an attorney right in town and ‘does everything.’ That would be Gerald Watkins Mayfield and he is everything I’ve been writing for years.

He works out of his garage and his wife pops in every few minutes to remind him to ‘watch the oven, dinner’s in’ but, all in all, it’s pretty charming. Until he starts talking. Then it’s funny and chilling – if you’re a lawyer.

The scene (easily the funniest in the show, period):

“So, you do mostly divorces?”

“Nope, mostly wills, trusts, estates.”

“You do some divorces?”

“You know what, Robert? Basically, it’s all law.”

That’s it, in a nutshell, perfectly put by a great character. ‘Basically, it’s all law.’

It’s not, of course, but clients still buy into it. As Robert does. Disastrously. I’ll leave it to you to watch the show to see just how disastrously it is.

For now, though, just understand that if you need a divorce attorney, hire a firm that does family law; need an estate plan? Hire an estate planning firm; are facing a foreclosure? Retain someone who does exactly that most of her working day.

Foreseeing Effects

First semester of law school everyone takes Torts. It’s an interesting course, rarely boring as you’re reading about some pretty gruesome medical malpractices, product liabilities, personal injuries.

An important concept in tort law is ‘reasonable foreseeability.’ Basically -very basically – it boils down to ‘was it reasonably foreseeable that not having your two-ton truck’s squealing, grinding breaks fixed might eventually result in losing them coming down a steep hill and getting into an accident?

I thought of this earlier this week when I noticed a comment on the Facebook page. We had posted a whiteboard cartoon explaining the crumbling foundation crisis in Eastern Connecticut. The caption mentioned that HUD Secretary Ben Carson had just toured a home with a crumbling foundation and had promised some federal relief. The comment was brief and to the point: ‘Another thing to bail out, I’m sick of this state.’

I get this viewpoint, I really do – I pay taxes in Connecticut, too. And, I wish it were that simple. But, of course, it is not. Because while this crisis – and it is a crisis – snuck up on us over more than a decade, it’s effects – from here on – are most certainly foreseeable.

First, 34,000 homes in 41 towns in Eastern Connecticut may be affected. Homeowners insurance will not cover the condition, banks and mortgage companies have no solutions, the costs of repairs – if at all feasible – are usually prohibitive. Government resources and funds are needed.

To take a complicated situation and greatly simplify, it goes like this -dozens of homes in a small town have crumbling basements:

Instantly they lose whatever equity the homeowners have built up over the years;

The homeowners cannot, obviously, refinance or obtain a home equity loan to fix the problem – if it is fixable;

The house cannot be sold;

The tax assessment by the town drops like a rock;

The more houses – and, remember, there are 34,000 homes that may have this problem – a town has with the problem, the more it’s tax base drops;

The more the town’s tax base drops, the more cutbacks to services, the more cutbacks to schools;

Cutbacks in services and schools inevitably mean lower rankings for livability and schools;

The lower the rankings, especially for schools, the lower the desirability for new homebuyers;

The fewer new home buyers, the lower the assessments;

And we start all over again;

Except, by now, since this effects 41 towns, the consequences are seen on a statewide basis, as about one-third of the state can no longer contribute much to Connecticut’s already hurting economy.

If we don’t come up with solutions to this problem – wide ranging, creative solutions – the effects are all too foreseeable and they will be felt by everyone.