Consumer Bankruptcy Journal Summer 2015 - Page 48

THE MYTH OF PANDORA An Attorney’s Journey to find Hope By Steve Berken Law Office of Stephen E. Berken P andora opened the box and all the illnesses and hardships that gods had hidden in the vessel escaped. Frightened by the ghostly forms she saw fleeing from the box, she tried to close it as fast as she could. The one remaining spirit, trapped in the box, was Hope. Yes, I am a lawyer, and I “practice the law.” Bankruptcy law. But what I really do for living—have always done—is rescue people. I am good at it, but it takes a toll on me. At my age, I am supposed to be “hardened” against the down-onluck stories. The endless accounts of illness in the family, loss of a job, the car accidents without insurance, the health insurance that was there but ran out, thoughts of suicide at the prospect of losing the family home, the wayward child enmeshed in the criminal system. I listen to their stories. And I know that people who file for bankruptcy protection come from regular families who hit hard times. A loss of a job, a medical problem, a divorce. It’s not the stories the media spins out—that people have lost their sense of right and wrong, deadbeats buying consumer products they do not need. And, they blame themselves. They cringe at why they took out a home loan they did not understand. For failing to appreciate that they have no job security. For trusting family members who let them down. For thinking their health insurance would cover the hospital bills. 48 CONSUMER BANKRUPTCY JOURNAL At my age, I am supposed to be jaded—that I have heard it all, figured out the angles, fixed much. That I am entitled to say “no” when faced with a plea for help, because I am too busy, too tired, or as my dad used to warn, “let George do it.” This is the problem. Either I have a bad memory (a real possibility at 58 years of age) in thinking that the tough stories I heard 30 years ago were not that bad, or we are living in the most disastrous economic time of the last eighty years. Yes, I can get people back on their feet, financially, by getting rid of debt. I can get rid of second mortgages. I can pay the value of a car instead of what is owed; get five years to repay taxes with no interest or penalties. I can get rid of those devilish credit cards and pay-day loans. But here is the point—I can’t create income for my clients. I can’t return thriving businesses to our community, or develop wellpaying jobs. I can’t restructure our educational system to train hightech manufacturing to produce what Germany does. Our community has been hijacked by Corporate America, whose eye on the bottom line has nothing to do with the well-being of Americans. And the game is so terribly rigged that I am pessimistic for my generation and many to follow. I fear for my daughters that they will not be able to make a living or afford a Summer 2015 home without working 60 hours a week. As I said, the game is rigged. More than 50% of former Congressmen and U.S. Senators become lobbyists and 75% of judges sitting on the federal bench came from practices focusing on corporate clients and their interests. Our U.S. Supreme Court has decided that a corporation is entitled to the same “free speech” that you and I enjoy. So what do I do in my little office? I figure out fantasy budgets for a family, and pretend that three people can eat on $300 a month and that kids really don’t need many clothes. And I have to tell clients that, no matter how hard I try to get the budget to work, they just can’t afford the tiny, tired house in Morrison. This thing I do—helping people who are broke—is becoming very hard. And instead of becoming jaded, I look at the faces of my clients and feel the pain like I have never felt before. I have stopped looking at the faces of people on the street, because I wonder and worry—how are they making it? At 58 years old, having litigated just abo ut every issue there is in consumer bankruptcy—I know how to rescue. But I am getting old and I can’t shrug off stress like I used to. So, I have been reading about stress and how damaging it is to one’s health. And like a good student, I have read National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys