Two days of the annual spring meeting of the American Bankruptcy Institute have come and gone. I've appreciated several fine programs that are valuable not only to the 1000+ lawyers and judges who are here but have alerted me to a serious problem. Depending on the District, from 5-8% of bankruptcy cases are currently filed pro se. This is in part what Congress intended with the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Protection and Consumer Protection Act [sic]. Specific authorization of "bankruptcy petition preparers" and onerous certifications of fact by lawyers have had the effect of driving folks priced out of the market of bankruptcy attorneys into the arms of untraceable internet operators who take $400-600 for pleadings that fail their intended purpose.
I was aware of this phenomenon but not its extent. The burden of dealing with an increasing volume of pro se filers whose filings are incomplete and who have no advice on dealing with issues like properly listing exemptions, avoiding liens, and even what is a "claim" fall on Chapter 7 trustees and the court. Word in the hallways is that some trustees are getting out of the business given the additional complexities caused by unrepresented debtors.
What is encouraging, however, were some conversations about adding preparation of simple bankruptcy petitions (and, of course, the other pleadings required at the outset of a case) to student-staffed clinical programs. I hope to pursue this possibility but want to suggest that other law schools consider adding supervised petition preparation to their clinical offerings.I've always believed that bankruptcy law is a great capstone course. Not only does it combine statutory construction and Constitutional law, it forces students to recall and apply what they learned in first year contracts, property, and torts. Throwing in readings and discussions of legal policy (and, in my case, theology of debt relief) makes teaching bankruptcy loads of fun. Combining the classroom with fieldwork would be frosting on the cake.