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Law students advise consumers under siege from creditors

Consumer Finance Advocacy Clinic

Law students are ready to serve and learn in a new law clinic focused on consumer debt judgements. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Law Forum

UB LAW FORUM

Published August 1, 2013

“We see people with a history of working who have faced medical and economic hardship that negatively impacts their ability to pay bills.”
Lauren Breen, clinical associate professor
UB Law School

Students in the Law School’s newest clinic are learning and serving the public in an area where they’re sorely needed: the world of consumer debt judgments.

Lauren Breen, clinical associate professor who began the Consumer Financial Advocacy Clinic last spring, says the need arises primarily from the high-volume debt-buyer industry.

Typically, she says, debt-buyer companies purchase unsatisfied debts from original creditors who have written the debt off for pennies on the dollar. The debt buyers most often obtain default judgments, then freeze bank accounts or garnish the wages of consumers to collect the monetary judgments. Many of these consumers are not properly served with the summons and complaint, and only discover they have a default judgment against them when their bank account is frozen, wages are garnished or they are denied a job based on information in a credit report.

Surprisingly, Breen says, the debt may not even be theirs.

“The judgment may or may not be from a lawsuit that has been conducted in a fair and equitable manner,” she says. “Many consumer-debt lawsuits are not served properly and debt buyers often do not purchase any of the underlying documents to prove a debt is owed. Even debt discharged in bankruptcy is purchased by debt buyers.”

Hence the clinic, in which student attorneys, working with legal services and volunteer attorneys, help staff the Buffalo Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office, or CLARO. A project of the Western New York Law Center, CLARO works with client “visitors” on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings. The project is modeled on one created at Fordham University Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice.

When CLARO visitors arrive, Breen says, they go through an intake interview, receive guidance about their rights as consumers and work closely with an attorney to prepare legal documents to address the consumer problem.

“Being able to talk through a consumer issue with an attorney or a student attorney is valuable to the visitors in both legal and nonlegal ways,” she says. “It’s dramatic when a consumer debtor tells his or her story to the attorneys. We can see the relief on their faces when they leave. … We get all kinds of life situations. We see people who are on disability who strive to repay their debts. We also see people who at one time were making six-figure salaries who, due to a medical crisis or losing a job, fall from economic grace and are terrified when they receive a summons and complaint.

“They don’t have the money to hire an attorney,” Breen says, “but they know they probably should have an attorney. We generally do not see people who ran up credit cards with a lot of luxury items. We see people with a history of working who have faced medical and economic hardship that negatively impacts their ability to pay bills.”

The student attorneys—many of whom are facing the prospect of repaying their own education loans—can relate to the visitors’ situations, she says, noting, “I was struck by the natural respect and empathy they have for the visitors.”

The educational component, Breen points out, ranges widely. “Student attorneys generally learn New York State civil practice law and procedure rules,” she says. “The mentoring that goes on with the students is really important. We are lucky to leverage the legal experience of many experienced attorneys from the Western New York Law Center and from private practice.”

Student attorneys with the Consumer Financial Advocacy Clinic talk about clinic experiences, such as dealing with a visitor who has just lost a job opportunity because of a credit report error, or another with a mental impairment, or one who brings a relative who is not thrilled with the idea that they’re meeting with a student attorney.

“We can’t predict who’s going to come in the door, so talking about what worked and what we could do better next time is really effective for the student attorney,” Breen says. “They’re learning all sorts of things critical to practice that I may not even catch every week.”

The student attorneys also write a weekly reflection paper, and Breen says she can see their attitudes toward people in financial trouble change as they do the work.

“They might come into the clinic thinking that people were irresponsible, bought too many luxury items, things they didn’t need, and weren’t being careful,” she says. “But the students say, ‘I met somebody and here’s how this person got into financial trouble: They got cancer, they couldn’t work full time for a year, they charged $10,000 on their credit card just to get by.’ So the students are very much learning to have an open mind about how people come to need legal assistance.

“The overwhelming number of CLARO visitors have been enormously grateful and so generous in terms of allowing student attorneys to observe and represent,” Breen says. “They understand it’s a teaching clinic. These are very personal situations, and it’s been such a gift from these visitors to create this learning opportunity.”