Your “junk” debt is my pro bono dream

When is the last time you saw a credit card company write a letter like this?

Dear Valued Customer,
How are you? We heard that you’re going through a tough time at work, and your kid needed emergency surgery last month. We understand that the price of food and gas has gone up, and it’s pretty impossible to live without that stuff, right? If you can swing it, you do owe us some money. Honestly, couple thousand dollars is basically a drop in the bucket to us, so if you can’t pay us back this year, we’ll just call it off and let you go on living your life. If you need any advice about living on a tight budget without going into debt, just call us, and we’ll see what we can do about getting you a solid financial education and a living-wage job. Keep in touch!
Best wishes,
Your Credit Card Company

 

Nope. Not happening in this lifetime. A letter like this might be tough for you to ignore, but many real-world debt collection notices go straight in the trash, and phone calls go ignored. Once the debt has changed hands to a debt collector like Midland Funding or Portfolio Recovery, you’re probably even more confused. And a notice from the sheriff that you’re expected in court for a debt you’ve been unable to pay all along is tough to open, much less answer. So you ignore that, too.

The BU Law pro bono spring break team at Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

The BU Law pro bono spring break team at Pine Tree Legal Assistance (minus 2).

That’s where my pro bono spring break work at Pine Tree Legal Assistance came in. We investigated why people don’t show up to small claims court to face the debt collection agencies that have been hounding them for months or years. While the answer seems pretty obvious (fear, confusion, dread), it’s part of a larger, tougher issue. It involves complex transactions with millions of dollars in “junk debt” bought by a few large companies, which then pursue these lawsuits nationwide. Then, they win. Almost all the time — and in large part, it’s because people who owe money just don’t show up.

If you’re a person with a credit card debt of less than $6,000 in Maine, you’re usually sued in small claims court. The rules there are much more lax than in other courts; the company demanding money from you doesn’t even have to produce witnesses or evidence that they own your debt. Generally, the only substance to their claim is an “affidavit” signed by someone you, as a debtor, have never met; they might have a summary of your debt that looks something like a credit card statement. This works for them because it’s so hard for the average pro se defendant (person representing herself) to counter even this limited evidence. But Pine Tree has a volunteer attorney with a solid approach, who’s willing to help. When he stood up on a defendant’s side, I witnessed the lawyer for the debt buyer backing down immediately to “dismiss with prejudice, your honor.”

It’s almost that simple: Don’t show, and you owe everything; show up and get help from PTLA, and your case gets dismissed.

Of course, these things change; companies that can afford to buy debts by the millions will adapt, just as they have in the foreclosure market. (This is most certainly not legal advice, readers!) But it is inspiring work, and it is filling what seems to me to be a desperate need among hundreds of indebted Mainers. Our weeklong project was one piece of a long-term, comprehensive solution to an issue that affects millions of Americans, most of whom cannot find another way out of their debt challenges.

Portland is seriously fun and pretty, too. And it's only 110 miles from BU, so it's an easy weekend trip.

Portland, Maine, is seriously fun and pretty, too. And it’s only 110 miles from BU, so it’s an easy weekend trip.

The best part is that this is just one of the dozens of projects that the amazing PTLA staff and volunteer attorneys are devoted to working on every day. I have an impulse toward public service, but up to now I have not had a chance to spend time in an environment full of like-minded, practicing attorneys. Even though consumer debt is not my primary area of interest, they were great about making a complex problem approachable, answering questions, and providing resources that made our project possible in just a few days. And on a personal level, they were terrific about introducing me to family law attorneys, who gave me an optimistic yet realistic understanding of the type of work I hope to be doing full-time soon.

I would count myself lucky to be able to work at an agency like Pine Tree, for spring break, a fellowship, or a career.

A Quick Update on Egypt

My first post for BU’s student blog dealt with the International Human Right’s Clinic’s Egypt trip to research the Syrian refugee crisis.  Now that the end of our project is approaching, I wanted to share some exciting news and more information that we are still incorporating into our report’s final draft.

A month after we returned from Egypt, the government released 171 Syrian refugees from detention centers in Egyptian police stations.  Unfortunately, by this time, around 1,200 other detained Syrians and Palestinians, who had been given the option of expedited removal or indefinite detention, had already left the country.  The release of these 171 detainees represents an important step for Egypt toward a more humane refugee policy.   However, according to Amnesty International, 18 Syrians remain in detention without any legal justification.

These recently released detainees were part of a group of around 1,500 who the Egyptian authorities arrested as they were beginning the perilous journey to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean.  Some of these boats sank claiming lives, separating families, and leaving many refugees in extremely desperate circumstances.  In one instance, Egyptian naval forces opened fire on a boat packed with refugees heading to Europe.  The attack resulted in the deaths of two refugees, a Palestinian woman and a Syrian man.

Many of our interview questions for the Egyptian government and UNHCR focused on the deplorable detention conditions in Egypt’s police stations.  During this time, there was no indication that Egypt planned to release any of the detained refugees.  Certain NGOs and volunteer attorneys had challenged the detentions in Egyptian court, and many won release orders for their clients.  The Ministry of the Interior, however, refused to comply with those orders.  By the time of our trip, Egyptian authorities had released only a few refugees sporadically making it impossible to discern a clear policy.

By releasing these 171 detainees, Egypt moves closer to compliance with its international legal obligations against arbitrary detention and forced return of refugees to their country of origin.  The fact that there has been a mass release may also suggest that the political situation in Cairo has stabilized to a certain extent.

Human Rights Watch reported that the release was the result of intense lobbying by the United Nations, Egyptian and International NGOs, and other foreign governments.  Though Syrians and many other Middle Eastern and African refugees in Egypt face substantial obstacles in housing, employment, education, and health care, the release of these 171 Syrians is amazing news.

More information on our report to come soon!  Have a great rest of your spring break!

 

Spring Break Pro Bono Trip in Portland, Maine

Maine Photo

 

I’m spending my spring break this year volunteering at Pine Tree Legal Services in Portland, Maine. I was hoping to look for summer housing, learn about the legal needs and concerns of the community I’ll be entering as I spend next summer here, and working towards fulfilling my pro bono hours pledge. My hopes have been fulfilled – I’ve been able to look at some apartments in the evening and get a much better feel of Portland.

I have really enjoyed working on real (e.g. not hypothetical) problems as a change of pace. We’ve been researching real estate records, taxation of real estate professionals, and financing conditions in Lewiston, Maine, where affordable housing in high demand, but many affordable apartments are in poor condition. Working on real project – with all its messiness – and turning research into memos and databases that might actually be used someday is a welcome reminder that all this work in law school is helping me gain skills that I can actually use.

I’ve also had the opportunity to meet some BUSL students from the 1L and 3L classes that I had never met before. We’ve been enjoying Portland’s famous ‘foodie’ culture with lobster, specialty pizzas and sandwiches, New York Times endorsed Mexican food and more. I’ve especially enjoyed the city’s incredible array of gluten free options – I’ve eaten pizza, sandwiches, muffins, cupcakes, and soup this week, in addition to always-gluten free delicious foods like lobster and tacos. Despite the wet weather this week, I’m really looking forward to coming back this summer.

Although I’m not getting a bit of my own work done (erg), I think the pro bono spring break service trip was a good decision!

The More You Know…

I spent my junior year of college in India through a program run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The majority of the credits the students in this program receive are from a large research project of each student’s own design, which culminates in a (very long) research paper. My own paper was 92 pages long, including a glossary of Sanskrit and Hindi terms, and several appendices. I approached this paper very strategically – I planned out my own paper deadlines and designed a strict research methodology for my paper, which I essentially followed to a T for the whole year. I still have the official, signed copy on my bookshelf in my room in its original baby blue binding from the local Indian printing company. I felt very clever for having written this great, long piece of scholarly work.

When I look over my thesis and other papers I wrote in college, I realize not only how far I have come in life and in school, but how very, very far I have to go. This year in law school I am working on my “note” for the International Law Journal, which will count as my upper class writing certification. It is a struggle – it is really challenging to write a good and worthwhile scholarly legal paper. I have a good topic, and I have done much research. The more I learn about international trade, human rights, and politics in the context of Bangladesh’s occupational safety and health issues, the less qualified I feel to voice some opinion about the whole matter, and the more I care.

I really want to do my topic justice and write a note I would be proud to publish if I were to have the chance. Everything that is on my plate in law school is competing for my time and brain power – classes, homework, exam preparation, pro bono work, student organization involvement… I find myself avoiding working on my paper because I want so badly for it to turn out perfect, and I don’t feel up to the task. The hours I should spend combing through trade treaties, bilateral investment agreements, and law review articles! The perfect articulations I ought to be able to voice after four years of college education and nearly two more years of law school!

My note adviser, Professor Caruso, assures me that this struggle – to find sources, to read them, to analyze them, and to articulate thoughts about them – is itself the value of working on an academic note for certification. She is, of course, right in a large way. However frustrated I find it, though, I am for once really invested in going beyond expressing a thought because it is required. Now I want to express this thought because I think it is important, eve if it is enragingly complex.

The Legal Academy

Tonight is the 86th Academy Awards ceremony, also known as The Oscars. Awards will be given out for the Best Actor, Best Actress, and of course Best Picture of the year. With all of these accolades being awarded tonight, I think it’s time that I consider what the best parts of my 2L year have been so far. The envelope please…

OscarsBest Course: Health Law Externship

While not a traditional course, the Health Law Externship Program at BU Law has proven to be very educational. There’s no cold calling or a final exam, but I have learned so much just from working at Boston Children’s Hospital this semester. From attending meetings with the Hospital’s Institutional Review Board to drafting all sorts of agreements, this has been the best experience I’ve had in law school. I would highly recommend that, whatever your area of interest, you look into an externship as soon as you can.

Best Professor: Abigail Moncrieff

Professor Moncrieff teaches Legislation at BU Law as well as courses related to Health Law, including the seminar I am taking called Health Care Reform and the Constitution. She teaches her seminar in a way that simulates working in a law firm, where we are the associates and she is the partner. Just as you would call partners at a firm by their first names, Professor Moncrieff likes us to call her Abby. She is friendly, professional, and supportive. We often read articles she has written before class in order to engage in a critical discussion with her on that week’s topic. Those discussions have proven to be very enlightening, mainly due to the way in which Abby facilitates them.

There are plenty of other categories that I could cover, but I believe it’s time for someone else to present an award. What’s the best course you’ve taken? Who is the best professor you’ve had? No doubt there are plenty of nominees, but everyone deserves some recognition now and then.

All work, no classes = Real world fun

This semester I’m participating in a program called Semester in Practice where, instead of taking classes, I work full-time to receive academic credit. The program is run through the clinic department and I can easily explain it in three words: It is awesome.

For my placement, I’m working with a non-profit organization called Conflict Dynamics International, where I am part of a team working on a peacemaking initiative in Syria. Our work focuses on two main areas: (1) What kind of peace process will best facilitate and contribute to resolving the conflict in Syria? And (2) After the war is over, what type of governance system will help support peace in the long run? Pretty cool stuff, right?

Since January, I have had the amazing honor of helping this project grow and I’ve learned so much about what it takes to do this type of work. I have helped develop a strategy for maximizing the impact of this program. I have developed tools and frameworks to help us understand more about what is happening on the ground in Syria. I have even attended briefings at the United Nations in New York and met with Ambassadors from all over the world to learn more about how other countries view the conflict. This is real world experience and it is unlike anything I could ever learn in the classroom.

Next month I’ll be traveling to the Middle East to meet with representatives from all sides of the Syrian civil war. Our goal is to start a dialogue with these various constituencies to learn more about what they hope to gain out of the conflict and how they envision the future of Syria. As much as I enjoy being on campus, this sure beats sitting in a classroom talking about tax law!

The Semester in Practice program was one of the reasons I chose BU Law and I highly recommend you take a look at the program if you want to gain practical, hands-on  experience in any field.

Love on the rocks: Your relationship in law school

To honor the month of love, I thought I’d offer a few perspectives on surviving law school with your relationship intact. Being a law student is tough enough; add in your significant other and things can get a bit crazy. As in sleep-deprived, stress-eating, all-nighters-at-the-library crazy.

My boyfriend and I were dating before I started law school, so we had a pretty firm foundation before the madness of 1L started. We moved in together just before I started school and the first two months were absolute bliss.  He worked long hours and I love cooking, so I would always have a hot pipping dinner ready for him by the time he got home. We spent our weekends surfing in New Hampshire and exploring our new city. Life was great!  Then reality hit the fan and things went downhill…fast.  I realized I was way behind on studying – people had already starting “outlining” and reading “horn books” before I even knew what those words meant. As I scrambled to catch up, my stress level ratcheted up and, honestly, I don’t think it ever came back down. Homecooked dinners became rare, weekend trips non-existent,  and our free time mostly consisted of him watching TV while I poured over torts and civ pro.  How romantic.

Sadly, this is a common tale. I polled some of my classmates and many of them shared the same experience. From the  law student perspective, many expressed additional stress, frustration, and even guilt about not being able to spend quality time with their significant others. Almost all mentioned the TV watching/studying combo. (Tip: Hone your ability to study with TV as background noise, at least you’ll both be in the same room.)

Other common gripes were dealing the financial woes of being a student and dating someone who can afford to eat at real restaurants (no, Dominos does not count) and learning how to manage the stress of law school without taking it out on loved ones. (Tip: Dog walking can earn extra cash AND help to burn off stress.)

Let’s be honest, the non-law school half of this relationship is going to suffer.  It’s about sticking together and  figuring out how to mitigate the trauma. It’s really hard for non-law students to understand the strange quirks of law school culture. My boyfriend and his compatriots have a hard time comprehending why/how we could be so stressed out about school…it’s just school!  And the grades!  Oh my, don’t even get them started about our strange obsession with grades – we can’t stop talking about them, yet we can’t talk about who got what.

It may be hard to believe, but there are perks about having a non-law student significant other.  The number one response I got was that “we don’t talk about law school”. All your friends are law students; you eat, drink, study, live with all law students and all you talk about is ‘that case about the railroad’ or ‘the Professor’s crazy outfits’. When you finally get that one-on-one time with your honey, you get to leave the law behind and be a normal human again.

So, prepare yourselves!  This will be a challenge, but you can make it. Just remember, it’s not their fault (this goes both ways), maximize your study breaks, and by 3L you’ll have it all figured out.

 

It’s Time for Legal Follies!

BU Law students are known for their sense of humor.  Every year, a group of students dubbed the Legal Follies, put on a comedy performance.  The jokes mostly focus on, you guessed it, law school.  Even the professors get involved!  It’s a great time, and it’s awesome to see the talents of students outside of the classroom.  The show is written, produced, and acted entirely by students.  And there’s more!  A rockin’ student band plays great covers before the show and during intermission.

In addition to the live show, the legal blog Above the Law hosts an annual competition seeking the best law school videos.  BU has historically done well, submitting music video parodies.  Two of my favorites are “I like the law” and “Law So Hard.”

Just goes to show, BU law students are multi-talented!

 

Journals at BU Law

After 1L finals are complete, the dreaded writing competition looms.  The writing competition is half bluebook citation corrections and half legal writing, and your performance will determine which journal you end up on.  Students are allowed to opt out of the writing competition, but being on a journal is a valuable experience and it fulfills your writing requirement for graduation.  BU Law has some great journals, and since the law journal rankings were just released, I thought it would be helpful to discuss them here.

Journals in the law school are student-run, and publish articles from attorneys and professors.  Additionally, journals often publish Notes written by their student members.

First up, Boston University Law Review.  This is the flagship journal at the law school.  Our Law Review ranks an impressive 22nd and regularly publishes articles that are cited in other journals and legal opinions.  For example, I relied heavily on the Law Review’s symposium on David Strauss’s The Living Constitution while taking a seminar on Constitutional Theory.

Personally, I’m an Article Editor on the Journal of Science & Technology Law.  As an Article Editor, I review and edit the citations and content of the articles our managing editors selected for publication.  It’s been a great experience thus far, and the skills actually proved helpful during my judicial internship.

From its name, it’s clear that the Journal of Science & Technology Law focuses on the changing law in the fields of science and technology.  JOSTL is a very well-respected journal, ranking 71/1073 among specialized journals, and 7 among technology and science focused journals.

Other specialized journals at BU include, American Journal of Law and MedicineReview of Banking & Financial LawPublic Interest Law Journal, and Boston University International Law Journal.

 

Marriage and Law School

My first impression of law school was it would be full of single people, but to my surprise there is a healthy sized range of age, experiences, and statuses. There are students in their early to mid-20s, students closer to my age in their late 20s/early 30s, and slightly older. Some students are in relationships ranging from new love to well-established commitments and others are married like me. There are few with children too. It is rather reassuring to see such a range of people with different backgrounds and relationship statuses because I was initially concerned with being the outlier. No one treats me differently because I am married or even looks at me strangely for it.

Being married in law school isn’t as unusual or stirs up as many odd stares as I thought it would. There have been a few people with raised eyebrows and incredulous eyes ponder my ability to make such a commitment or how such a commitment would even last during this tough year. People warn me of the rocky road ahead for relationships because of the workload, the lack of time for your significant other, and the inability to really connect with him/her when you do have time. While the workload and law school commitment can and is intense, my relationship hasn’t felt any significant strain. There are days where my husband expresses how much he misses spending time with me or where our few minutes together each night before we fall asleep feels too brief, but we both understood law school would mean less time to spend together.

On the social side, being married affects me only because I prefer to go home after school than go to bar review or attend many social events. I already spend so little time with my husband that if I were to have free time, I’m compelled to spend it with him. Some of my much more socially active friends have suggested bringing him to these bar reviews, and I have brought him to a few events. It isn’t so much he is forbidden or discouraged to attend law school social events but rather, we value time with just each other. We ensure the spare time is used to keep us connected.