The Healthcare Vote, the Media, and My Practice.

After the House vote on the Health Care bill Thursday – you may have heard about it, it’s been mentioned on a couple of TV shows – my friend and associate, Donna Convicer,  received a series of phone calls from friends and clients. They were upset, as, of course, so many people are.

The crux of their concern -does the repeal of Obamacare mean that I’ll have to choose between paying my mortgage or paying my health insurance? That’s a grim choice, but one that’s certainly being debated out there on TV morning talk shoes. Scary stuff.

I have a friend who actually gets paid to follow the news and write. He tweeted a photo of the celebration in the Rose Garden with this comment: “House members of the GOP celebrating in the Rose Garden after vote is like the Patriots celebrating a preseason win. Over the Browns.”

He wasn’t being flippant (much) he was making a very solid point – one lost over days, now,  of rampant speculation; one nailed by Saturday Night Live last night – Thursday’s vote changed absolutely nothing. It had no tangible effect whatever on healthcare, taxes, or anything else.

Until the bill gets through the Senate, it is a theory. Not a very pleasant theory for way too many people, but a theory nevertheless. The Senate may not even schedule hearings on the thing for months.  The odds on the bill even being recognizable by the time it gets through the Senate are low.

You’d never know that from the media coverage over the last few days, unless you read the full articles, or listened to the end of every show – the little tidbit about the Senate’s vital part in all this tends only to get mentioned on the back end.

So, it’s been scary for a lot of people … and what does this all have to do with my practice?

Just this – every one of my clients has gone through exactly this range of emotions before they speak with me. Getting the first notice of a court hearing; that first official, legal document served by marshal or certified mail; is a shock every bit as hard hitting as the news people on Obamacare heard this week.

But, and here’s the thing, usually, just like this week’s news, there’s a long way to go before something substantial happens. A big part of my job is telling people shaken by the initial news that it’s just that – the beginning. There’s a long way to go, there are options.

Get served, sign for that letter at the post office … call me, exhale.

 

Lawyers, Math, and Why You Can’t Buy A Third-Pound Burger at A&W.

This week’s blog was co-authored with Jenny Bradley, a Family Law Mediation Attorney in the Research Triangle in North Carolina.  

In a perfect world, any half-way serious review of fast food burgers from around the country would rank the A&W Third-Pound burger right up there with In N’ Out and Shake Shack. By all reports the Third-Pound was a burger among burgers. Fresh, grilled, delicious, and it was priced below McDonald’s latest, and biggest seller, the ubiquitous Quarter Pounder (0r, as Vincent Vega would say, the ‘Royale with cheese’).

We’d go for one now, it sounds that good. Except we can’t – and that has nothing to do with the fact there are a whole lot fewer A&W’s around these days than in the early ‘80’s.

It has everything to do with the fact the Third-Pound was a miserable failure. Sure, it was big, sure it was fresh and delicious, sure it was cheaper than a Quarter Pounder. None of that mattered, what mattered was some 40% of the hamburger eating public believed that the Third-Pounder was smaller than the Quarter Pounder. Because 4 is greater than 3.

This happened in the mid-Eighties. It’s hardly a stretch to say that America’s grasp of mathematics has not improved since the A&W fiasco.

That’s a problem.

We are both lawyers, albeit with very different focuses. We both need math – we deal with a variety of financial issues, sometimes complex. But we deal with it. Even though we have the Dr. McCoy excuse – “Dammit, Jim, I’m a lawyer not a mathematician.”

While true, when confronted with a knotty financial issue that pops up during a foreclosure or compiling a divorcing couple’s assets, we do the math. It’s never as hard as it seems before we start.

Getting clients to do the math, though is sometimes daunting. We need forms filled out and basic calculations made before we can do much. But, it’s math, and the forms look imposing, and it’s personal and in many ways it represents a finality – of a marriage, of a home. So, no one’s rushing to get it done.

That’s all fine and, somewhat, to be expected. We cajole and remind and bug and get it done.

Our ‘Third-Pound’ scenario, though, pops up when we’re asked ‘what are the odds’. “What are the odds I keep the house?” “If I take it to court, what are the odds …?” and every possible variation and scenario.

We’ve been practicing long enough and intensively enough in our respective areas of concentration to be able to answer this and be pretty damn close. If we answered. But, we are loathe to do so. Because if it’s true that the average American is not good with math, then it’s even more true that they are really bad with odds.

Not sure about this? Well, poll your friends after the local weather guy predicts a 70% chance of rain and nothing beside a few black clouds roll overhead. You’ll find that a more than a few will complain about the ‘blown’ forecast. In any group of friends and acquaintances, by the way, there is always at least one person who will say, “Ha! They always get it the forecast wrong!”

The weatherperson didn’t get it wrong, of course. Because there was a 30% chance of it not raining. Not insignificant. Yet most people never heard 70%, they heard ‘It will rain.’ Because 70 is closer to 100 than 30 is.

As most legal matters are just a little bit more important than a rain shower, you could see where giving odds could be problematic.

Then, there’s the flip side of this. The Patriots just won a Super Bowl after being down 25 points in the third quarter. At the time, the odds (they were calculated online as the game went on by various sites) gave them a .4% chance of winning. When they were down 28-20 with four minutes left, they had an 8% chance of winning.

But they won. Coming back from a deficit like that hadn’t happened in 50 previous Super Bowls. Statistics tell us it shouldn’t happen again for at least another 50. Though statistics also tell us it could happen again next year, then not repeat for another 100 or more Super Bowls.

Rare is rare, but there’s no telling when it might pop up.

Which leads to another math problem for lawyers. Instead of the Third-Pound Dilemma, it’s the ‘So you’re telling me there’s a chance dilemma’, watch:

Put these two dilemmas together and we think you’ll understand why we are really, really careful answering ‘what are the odds’ questions.

Christmas and Debt … From 1843 …

So now, as an infallible way of making little ease great ease, I began to contract a quantity of debt.

~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

imageWhere would Charles Dickens have been without debt? Where would English Lit, Hollywood, and Christmas be without Dickens?

The running themes through Dickens’ long – and lucrative – career were crushing debt, workhouses, courts snarled in technicalities, poverty, sour credit, low wages, foreclosures, banks, scams, mass incarceration, sweatshops, social injustice … All very much applicable today.

If Dickens came back tomorrow, he’d be astonished by the speed of today’s communications; overwhelmed by the modern technologies used in finance; awed but probably pleased with the serialized novel on TV and Netflix, et al – I imagine him binge watching Breaking Bad and The Wire.

He’d find some things appallingly the same, others miraculous. He’d immediately recognize Pharma Bro, everyone running for President, the bankers in The Big Short. Give him a week and he’d be working on a new novel.

Dickens had an unfailing eye for all this because he lived it. He grew up in a imagemiddle class family, comfortable, good at school, apparently fairly happy. All that was destroyed when he was twelve and his father was tossed into debtor’s prison (right). Charles’ mother and younger siblings went with him – as was the custom. Charles,was forced to pawn his school books, was sent off to a workshop to help pay off his father’s debts.

An inheritance saved the family though Dickens’ mother was adamantly opposed to his leaving work and forced him to stay there for long, unhappy months before he left to resume his studies. He rewarded her for that particularly slight through dozens of novels and plays. (From Dickens to Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette, it’s never a good idea to upset an artist with wide reach).

In his early writing career – he was pretty much a prodigy from the start – he covered the courts and, briefly, Parliament.

He saw the system from every angle and he set out to attack it in the only way he could, through his writing, within the flexibility and thin protection of the novel. He opened Victorian eyes to the seamy underbelly of British wealth, society, and empire.

imageIn 1843 he turned his wrath to Christmas. At the time, many – including his good friend Washington Irving – felt that Christmas season was ebbing away from the poor and increasingly put upon middle-class.

He didn’t like what he was seeing, feeling, and he sat down to write a scathing pamphlet about the issue. It soon occurred to him that a novel would work much better, reach more people. In six weeks he crafted his ‘ghost story’, A Christmas Carol.

He published it himself in an effort to not be ripped off by his usual publisher.A Christmas Carol in prose. - caption: 'Marley's Ghost. Ebenezer Scrooge visited by a ghost.' In today’s parlance, it went viral. Immensely popular, even his [many] critics extolled it. Thousands and thousands of copies were sold, many more – particularly in the United States were ‘bootlegged’ – and it was immediately adapted for the stage. Dickens himself did stage readings of the entire manuscript. It was everywhere.

Humanitarianism, redemption, a dead-on accurate portrayal of early-Victorian England, it hit a nerve in Great Britain and the United States. It hit, hard, the people bearing the burden of the Industrial Revolution, changed the way everyone thought of the Christmas season.

imageHow a man who, when first confronted with poverty and homelessness, says, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Finds empathy is inspiring regardless of religious belief. A Christmas Carol was a great story, a strong, bitter indictment of the times, and it worked. It changed things. It has never been out of print.

Again, no debt, no Dickens, no Dickens, no holiday season? The latter may be a stretch, but it’s not unthinkable.

So, sometime in the next few days I plan on catching the 1950 Alastair Sim, A Christmas Carol – a great adaptation (out of dozens, beginning with Thomas Edison’s version in the early 1900s!).

And to all my readers, I hope it’s obvious, “God Bless Us, Everyone.”

Things That Never Go Away

In Sunday’s New York Times, Jake Halpern revisited collection agencies. Not the boilerroommoviecollection agencies you’d normally think of, but the collections agencies that buy old debt and go after it with a vengence, They buy it for pennies on the dollar, use boiler rooms out of movies like … well, Boiler Room, to collect on it, seldom report the payments, resell the debt … as John Oliver showed a few months ago, the cycle never ends.

Halpern points out that President Elect Trump wants to roll back Dodd-Frank. A perhaps unintended consequence of this would be the almost complete unfettering of the collection industry. 

With that in mind, we thought a look back at one of our first blog posts would be in order – because some things never go away.

Last Monday a friend of mine received a phone call on his cell phone from an unidentified Rhode Island number. He went to college in Providence, has friends there, answered.

rattman_paper
Script from a ‘collection’ company a few dozen times removed from the debt.

This is what he got – “Hi, Mr. Loman, this is an attempt to collect a debt, anything – yada, yada, yada … can you confirm the last four digits of your social?”

“No.”

“Is it ‘5555’?”

“Perhaps.”

“Okay, well, I have an account here from Verizon, you owe twelve hundred dollars.”

“I’ve never had a Verizon account.”

“Well, sure, but it could also be from -”

“Could be?”

“From any one of the following companies now part of Verizon …” the guy then read off a very long list of companies, a list that pretty much summed up the telephone industry of the 21st Century.

“No,” my friend answered.

“No? Whattaya mean, no?”

“I don’t owe anything to anyone on that list.”

“Says here you do.”

“Then it’s wrong.”

“Look, Biff, I have it right here and -”

My friend has a law degree and a long history of dealing with total BS, so it finally hit him to ask, “Wait a second, what’s the date on this supposed debt?”

The guy on the phone fumbled around, Biff could hear papers being shuffled, murmurs of other voices from the boiler room, then, “Yeah, got it here, 2003.”

“You’re calling me about a twelve year old debt?”

“Well, no, see, we just received it -”

“Yeah, well, then it sucks to be you, have a nice day, don’t ever call again.”

Continue reading Things That Never Go Away

Gerald Watkins Mayfield …

I have a new favorite TV lawyer, or had, I  don’t think he’s going to be around very long. Gerald Watkins Mayfield (played by Geoffrey Owens – perfectly). He’s in HBO’s new series 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. Just as obvious, as the show has been renewed for a second season and we’re only 6 episodes into the first, they are divorcing and it’s going to get ugly.

Last week’s episode saw Robert – well on his way to being the most annoying character on TV, cable and network – bagging mediation and deciding to hire a lawyer. That would be Gerald Watkins Mayfield and he is everything I’ve been writing about for the past year and a half.

In what is easily the funniest scene in the show thus far, Robert meets Gerald in his home office and ‘interviews’ him.

“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.

About My Schoolhouse Rock Facebook Post

IMG_0209Earlier today, I posted an old Schoolhouse Rock video on my Facebook page.  You’ll either recognize it from your childhood or from recently studying for the AP Government test (and why not, it’s that good!), it’s the famous ‘How a Bill Becomes Law.’

I posted it because I spent yesterday at the Connecticut State House for the formal signing of a new law, one that I helped work on in the spring.

ImjustabillIt was the bill signing for a bill that, among many other things, will prevent debt collectors from –literally—whiting out evidence that they present to the court when suing consumers on credit card debt.  Yep, they were routinely whiting out entire sections of information on documents that they didn’t think was relevant—you or I couldn’t get away with that!  And now debt collectors can’t either.

It’s great that this was signed into law, it’s pretty amazing that we had to get a law passed to stop debt collectors from doing something that has always been legally and morally wrong for the rest of us. But, it was really nice to see our little Bill grow up.

This is Where …

Broadway-0837-SlaveShip. . .I came in.

There’s a phrase that’s fast dying out. Oh, a few people still say it, usually when they get stuck listening to a repetitive argument – you know, a roll of the eyes as the speaker comes back to the same point yet again, then, “This is where I came in, I’m outta here.”

Easy to envision, we’re in the middle of a Presidential Election cycle.

Most people, though, don’t know what the origin of the phrase is. And, there’s no reason they should, it gets increasingly more archaic every day. It’s from the days when movie theaters ran features on a continuous loop. Walk in for a 4:15 show at 5:00, watch the last 45 minutes or so, then stay as the movie starts again. Bang, right back into it, you stay until you’re caught up, you leave … where you came in.

This was such a thing that some movies – Psycho, in particular – used it as a marketing Psycho_tiftool. “Absolutely No One Admitted After The Start!”

Today, there are so many ads and trailers before every movie that I, at least, need to be reminded what film I’m there to see by the time the theater finally goes dark. Even without all that, in this day of Spoiler Alert, it would never work without some form of violence.

Also – can you imagine seeing Pulp Fiction this way? Impossible to follow, I’m willing to bet.

Which – you had to know this was coming – is exactly what showing up in court after the case starts is: close to impossible to catch up. If they still let you in, because a lot of court actions come with the Alfred Hitchcock admonition, “No one … but no one” can participate after certain court proceedings start.

In court particularly foreclosure proceedings, we have to show up on time, sit through the ads and the coming attractions and go step by step, on time, from there. There’s little to no room for ‘coming in’ at any other time.

Back at the Movies . . .

10649966_1086276854757139_7594272388235192014_nBack at the beginning of the year I took a group of clients to see The Big Short. Great movie, fun and infuriating. That was about, in a fashion, how we got into this mess – the great recession, housing crisis, ongoing foreclosures. It was a sobering overview of the last few years.

This promised to be a year of movies about the financial crisis, recession, and aftermath and I’ve recently had a chance to see one of the latest, 99 Homes. Okay, actually, I saw Money Monster first, but that’s so far out of the realm of … reality . . . as to be meaningless (unless you believe that Julia Roberts and George Clooney solving a pending financial disaster/scam in a few hours has some real world application).

99 Homes, on the other hand, was a kick in the stomach. It was visceral, it was brutal. It sarahblogbegan with a court hearing in Orlando, Florida. A twenty second hearing in which a character was told the paperwork was in order and he would be evicted by the bank in the morning. The eviction scene was tense and just heart-ripping. It was hard to watch.

Something really hit me in the brief moments before that scene, though. It was quick and it could certainly have been overlooked in what follows – except that it’s repeated later in the movie, a few times actually, albeit in different forms.

This is it: a shot of the homeowner at a kitchen table buried in paperwork. He’s frantically burrowing through it while calling attorneys on his cell phone. It becomes clear that our protagonist 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.

Rethinking and Reordering Banks

This the first in an upcoming series of articles that revolve around Neil Gabler’s piece in The Atlantic, The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans. Gabler’s piece centered on the fact that 47% of Americans said they’d have trouble coming up with $400 in an emergency.

georgebaileyIf this is your banker, you don’t need to read any further. For the rest of us:
I have a friend who hit a financial brick wall last October. A self-employed professional, he had a ‘bunch of stuff’ happen in the worse possible order and he found himself barely scrapping by.

So, he took a second job at the seafood counter at a supermarket. He pretty much enjoyed it, the people were nice, the company seemed to care about its workers, he talked to people all day, and he could mentally calculate his pay-to-essential-living-expenses ratio on an hourly basis. As in, ‘the fourth hour today finishes up the electric bill, the fifth starts in on the gas.’

In a month, he had it and his finances down to a science. He received monthly checks from a couple of clients, he had his store pay direct deposited to his bank every week, it generally hit anytime over an eighteen-hour window mid-week.

One Friday in early December he knew he was going to cut it close – bills that had to be paid beat out earnings by a few dollars. That included a decent check from a client. He deposited the check, set up auto-pay from his accounts, and crossed his fingers. And kept them crossed over the weekend.

He wore his iPhone out checking his bank account pretty much hourly. Even while selling fish and humming a little Fatboy Slim to himself – “right about now, funk sole brother” – he took the time to follow the account as each bill was deducted and his balance shrank toward single digits.

By Monday morning, according to the bank app, he was close to being in the clear. He deposited a client check, the worst case scenario was that his biggest expense out – two hundred dollars and change – would hit, miss the deposit and end up costing him a $39 overdraft fee. Thirty -nine dollars for a couple of hundred is high interest, but not when it keeps the internet connection on.

Late afternoon, he made it. The client check showed as pending, all the small payments showed as paid, the ‘big’ check was nowhere to be found, his balance was positive. He was relieved and pretty pleased with himself for his financial nimbleness.

So, it came somewhat as a shock when he got an email from his bank at 4:38 pm, the dreaded ‘the bank’s been closed for eight minutes and you have IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR ACCOUNT’ notice.

As he signed into his account yet again, he was reconciled to the fact that he had just paid $39 to clear his $268.96 check. He was in no way prepared what he found.

The order of his transactions was startlingly different than it had been hours earlier. It now not only showed the ‘big’ check, it showed it being paid first. The five subsequent small payments all overdrew his account, one was for $5.00. The $39 fee was applied to each check for a grand total of $195 in bank fees on under $500 in transactions. The pending deposit no longer showed anywhere.

He called the bank. The first person he spoke to was pleasant and of no help whatsoever. She did see the pending deposit, said, “You’ll be fine now, too bad about the hundred and ninety-five bucks.”

He asked for a supervisor. She was not as nice, she was, in fact, weirdly confrontational – she came right at him. No ‘how can I help you?’ more like ‘we paid these, how dare you …” He mentioned watching the account all weekend and the order in which he saw everything happening.

Her answer was not what he expected, “Well, did you do screen saves?”
“No,” he said, “didn’t think I needed to.”
“Then you read it wrong, if you had checked on-line on a computer instead of using the app you would have seen that.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Of course it does,” she snapped.

It got worse from there. He got nowhere. His deposit cleared the next morning, his account was exactly where it was ‘projected’ to be early Monday, less $195. Or, 16 hours of work, before taxes. Meanwhile, the bank cleared $195 for … nothing.

To even the casual observer, it appears that the bank orchestrated this. Which, of course, it did. It’s called ‘reordering’ and it’s done every day. It’s frowned upon but it’s not illegal. Banks make over $30 billion/year on overdraft fees. They are an enormous business. Banks, by the way, are in business to make money. For themselves and their shareholders.

I bring this up here, now, because I still have people who wait to hire an attorney and act – proactively act – because they are ‘working it out with the bank.’ For some reason, a lot of people still think that the ‘nice person at the bank’ is in it together with them.
I’m sure they’re nice, I’m equally as sure that they are acting in the best interest of the bank. Because that’s their job.

Mine is representing your best interests, and the earlier I start, the better the chances of an acceptable outcome.

Handling a Foreclosure Isn’t Like Riding a Bike . . . or Is It?

Today’s post is a guest post from Attorney Bruce Stanger of Stanger & Associates of West Hartford, CT

il_570xN.603520998_1xub“It’s just like riding a bike.”  That saying has always been a little problematic.  It makes it sound like bike riding is incredibly easy and that anyone can just hop on a bike, pedal furiously and they’ll be gliding down the street like Greg LeMond.  This figure of speech doesn’t factor all the hours of wobbling, tree colliding and knee scraping that goes into the bike-riding process. Continue reading Handling a Foreclosure Isn’t Like Riding a Bike . . . or Is It?