Third-year law students at Georgia State University are gaining real lawyering skills in an innovative bankruptcy class that allows them to represent actual debtors.
The class is the brainchild of Jessica Gabel, who joined GSU's law school faculty in 2009 after four years as a litigator at Covington & Burling in San Francisco.
Gabel said she started the Bankruptcy Assistance and Practice Program to give students experience working with real clients and to help people filing for bankruptcy who cannot afford a lawyer. She added that Georgia has one of the highest rates of unrepresented debtors in individual bankruptcy cases in the country.
The 16 students in the class will work in pairs, mentored by local bankruptcy lawyers, to represent low-income debtors pro bono. The State Bar of Georgia allows third-year law students to represent clients with the supervision of a licensed attorney.
The Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation are referring the clients.
Gabel won a teaching innovation grant to launch the program from GSU's College of Law, which is offering the grants to promote more experiential learning.
"Given the abysmal state of the legal market right now, law students are entering a very competitive job market. This is not just about teaching legal skills. They need to learn how to connect with others, network and take ownership and responsibility. Law schools haven't taught that. I think it's high time we do," Gabel said.
Law students responded enthusiastically to the opportunity. Gabel said all the slots for the class were taken 10 minutes after course registration started.
When one of the 3Ls, Ashley Worrell, signed up last spring, she did not have a job lined up for after graduation. "That was absolutely a factor in why I decided to take the class," she said.
Worrell said her other law school classes have been "law-based doctrinal classes," so she jumped at the chance to gain experience representing real clients, while still having the safety net of guidance from a mentor attorney, plus Gabel and Jacob Vail, the program's legal coordinator.
Like the other third-years, she has already taken Gabel's introductory bankruptcy law class.
"It's a fabulous opportunity for us," Worrell said. "In law school we get a lot of 'here's the law and the rules' but not a lot of 'here's how it plays out in real life.'"
"It's a little nerve-wracking. These are real peoples' lives, not just hypotheticals," she added.
Gabel said her own experience motivated her to start the Bankruptcy Assistance and Practice Program. "I spent most of my childhood watching my parents go through financial turmoil, but they were too scared to talk to a lawyer about bankruptcy," she said, adding that they did not think of bankruptcy an option.
"So we moved all over the country, dodging creditors, getting evicted, and living on welfare and food stamps. By the time I was 10, I was all too familiar with the terms foreclosure, repossession and garnishment."
She hopes the GSU program can keep other people from going through that.
A typical bankruptcy filer, Gabel said, is a person who has incurred expensive medical bills but is not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid and not old enough for Medicare. The doctors and hospitals turn the bills over to a collection agency, the debtor tries to pay them off with a credit card and "it starts to snowball," she said. "It becomes unmanageable, and they can't see a way out."
Beyond teaching law students, as part of the program Gabel has organized a monthly class for the community on how to avoid bankruptcy. Lawyers from Atlanta Legal Aid will explain foreclosures, loan modifications and all the other things that happen before a bankruptcy, she said.
The community class is held on the last Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in Room 230 of GSU's College of Law, 140 Decatur St. S.E.
After two weeks in the law school class, the students have just been assigned mentors and clients, who are individuals filing for Chapter 7.
The students have role-played interviewing clients in class to prepare. Worrell said that last week she and three other students impersonated "difficult clients—all with something to hide—to learn how to ask tough questions and do it tactfully."
Learning how to interview and interact with clients is more important to Worrell than the courtroom experience. "To learn that skill requires a lot of sensitivity that we do not get training for," she said.
One of the volunteer mentors, Howard Rothbloom, said sitting down with his clients and counseling them is what he likes best about his work, after almost 30 years handling consumer debtor and bankruptcy cases.
"You analyze their problem in an hour and a half within the context of the law—and make them better. That is a very special thing about being a lawyer," Rothbloom said. "I would like to teach the students a little about that. I think it's very important, especially these days when we send texts and emails and don't talk to each other.
"I love being a lawyer. I like representing people for a living. I would like the students to feel the same way," he said.
Gabel credited two bankruptcy lawyers at McKenna Long & Aldridge, Summer Chandler and Alison Elko Franklin, with helping her gain support from Atlanta's bankruptcy bar for the program by connecting her with bar groups and potential mentors.
Most of the mentors are in private practice: Rothbloom, Rob and Carol Colliersmith, Ian Falcone, Charles Clapp, Lorena Saedi, Adam Herring, Jonathan Proctor, Joycelyn Curry, Denise Dotson, Melissa Herman, Keena Patel and Craig Black. The other two, Sarah Mancini and Angela Riccetti, work for Atlanta Legal Aid.
The bankruptcy sections of the State Bar of Georgia and the Atlanta Bar Association, the Metro Atlanta Consumer Bankruptcy Group and the Georgia Network of the International Women's Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation have become sponsors.
Gabel said the McKenna lawyers also helped her craft the course and served as a second set of eyes on handbooks she's put together for the students and mentors. She's drawn on materials from a bankruptcy clinic at the University of Miami, where she went to law school.
But lawyers at McKenna cannot serve as the law students' mentors, due to an odd twist in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.
The law requires a firm handling individual consumer bankruptcies to post a disclaimer on its website stating it is a consumer debt relief agency. Large firms that represent banks, like McKenna, can't do that, so their lawyers cannot represent individual debtors.