Could It Be That the Best Chance to Save a Young Family From Foreclosure is a 28-Year-Old Pakistani American Playright-slash-Attorney who Learned Bankruptcy Law on the Internet?
BY WAJAHAT ALI
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From time to time we’ll be posting full articles from the San Francisco Panorama. Wajahat Ali, the author of the following example, hoped that this article could reach readers all over the web—especially those who might not have found the story through our usual channels—so we’re presenting the entire article in both PDF and text-only form. This story, which is hilarious and reads like a thriller, concerns Ali’s efforts (as a self-taught, foreclosure attorney) to save a family from foreclosure. It’s a must-read, for anyone interested in how banks work—and don’t work.
I was late when I first met my clients, the Lipkin family, outside my office. I was very late. I couldn’t believe I was late. I felt like an imposter. Maybe I was an imposter. I had dressed as professionally as I could: a sophisticated sports jacket, slicked-back gelled hair, elegant briefcase. My straightened posture exuded the charismatic confidence of a seasoned attorney. In my mind, at least.
I extended a hand and introduced myself to a family that was about to have their home foreclosed upon. Carl and Natalie, the husband and wife (I’ve changed their names), were both in their early thirties. Their three young daughters were with them, wilting in the heat of the parking lot. They met me with open smiles, even though they had just driven ninety minutes from Sacramento on a scorching summer day. I invited them in.
I was hoping they would never guess that despite being a licensed attorney two years out of law school, I was utterly paralyzed with fear—and earnestly praying to Allah that my potential clients were not about to call me out as an incompetent charlatan, punch me in the face, storm out of the office, and call the state bar seeking to disqualify me.
I was the guy who was going to save these people from being evicted from their own home? Who was I kidding?
In reality, “my law office” was actually my friend’s office, which he’d lent to me so that I could meet these clients. The classy jacket had been purchased at a clearance sale in an outlet store at the Great Mall in Milpitas. The gel was the last remnant of a decaying and potentially expired bottle I’d probably had since college but never found the opportunity to use. The suitcase was a gift from my relatives in Pakistan—who, much like the rest of my family, were thoroughly shocked that I had passed the bar exam and become a licensed attorney. My business cards had been printed for free by Vistaprint, and despite having a professional front side featuring my name in bold letters and the words ATTORNEY AT LAW, the back side glared BUSINESS CARDS ARE FREE AT WWW.VISTAPRINT.COM!
Game over. I was doomed.
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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2007 I graduated from UC Davis School of Law, a reputable institution that ranks in the top forty of the inexplicably influential U.S. News &World Report annual school ranking. According to my Property professor, students who graduate from top-forty law schools are bred to “find a comfortable desk job, most likely in a corporation, and make a nice income without really having to get their hands dirty.” The old saying goes that the A students become the professors, the B students find jobs in government or corporate law, and the C students end up making all the money.
But given the economy, this conventional wisdom was out the window. Instead of being employed at all, like thousands of others who were unlucky enough to graduate law school in 2007, I ended up in my old bedroom, sharing the family home with my parents and my grandmother.
Despite being thoroughly emasculating for a twenty-eight-year-old, living at home certainly has its benefits. You never have to cook, given that your mother, a culinary Jedi Knight, makes fresh Pakistani food every night. You avoid doing the laundry and the dishes, because your father has a “specific system” that only he has mastered. Also, you have your own personal “prayer factory” in the form of a very pious grandmother, who constantly sends duaas and blessings your way—and reminds you nonstop that the only reason she’s still living is to see you married and with kids. And for a solo attorney without any money, home can also serve as a convenient and rent-free law office.
After passing the bar, I immediately started scouring the internet for any job even tangentially related to law. I applied for legal-secretary positions, legal-assistant jobs designed for nineteen-year-old college students, unpaid internships at shady start-ups, even senior legal-counsel positions at corporations requiring a minimum of ten years’ experience. I shamelessly claimed, as one of my qualifications, “worldly wisdom that compensates for lack of actual legal experience.” I was denied by every recruiting center.
Dejected, I lapsed into my innate South Asian melodrama. I made the following declarations: “My life is shameful. I’m a grownass man, thoroughly qualified, who just got denied a menial job at a small law firm. If I was a samurai in feudal Japan, I would have to harakiri myself out of dishonor and shame.”
“Well, you’re no samurai,” replied my mother, “and you’re not in feudal Japan. You’re Pakistani and you’re living at home. So be quiet, eat your daal and naan, and afterward go get some hara dhaniya, pyaaz, tamatar, and Lactaid milk from Food 4 Less.” My mother is the world’s second-bluntest instrument, preceded only by my father.
Tired of being rejected, I decided to venture forth and learn the law on my own. It didn’t take a genius to figure out we were heading toward a full-blown recession; a South Asian attorney, who’d cornered the niche market of “the Pakistani American attorney” years ago, told me to learn how to file Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies, which were the bread and butter of solo attorneys trying to survive. And so off I went to Google.
I typed in “Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy guides” and found the trusted and respected Nolo legal guides for less than thirty dollars apiece. These guides are manna from heaven for aspiring attorneys; they ostensibly teach the layman all the fundamentals of how to “do it yourself ” so you won’t have to spend money on people like me, but it turns out they’re just as useful to law school graduates living with their parents.
I devoured every bankruptcy book I could find, and then turned to my associate legal counsel, Google, for more (free) information on bankruptcy law. Somewhere along the way I read an article predicting a rise in foreclosures due to the disastrous economy, and realized the rate of Chapter 13 bankruptcies was going to increase exponentially as people desperately tried to save their homes.
I also discovered that agents and brokers who’d made hundreds of thousands in the once booming but now hemorrhaging “loan refinancing market” had magically transformed into “loan-modification consultants.” So the subprime-mortgage brokers who had actively preyed on unsophisticated people by convincing them to sign “too good to be true” loans—which later defaulted, thereby capsizing the housing market—were now demanding more money from these same clients in order to modify their loans and allow them to avoid pending foreclosures.
Despite being equipped with some—some—knowledge, I shared the quintessential trait of all young attorneys: unrelenting, paralyzing fear. It overwhelms everything we do and contaminates the first two to three years of our law jobs. The thought process goes something like this: “I know nothing. How the hell did I get this degree? How the hell did I pass the bar? Law school didn’t teach me anything. Do my employers know I’m incompetent? How long can I fake this before they figure it out? Are my peers like this? How come everyone else knows what they’re doing? What if I never learn? What happens if I get fired or fail? Will I get disbarred? I bet I’ll get disbarred! Damn, I’m getting disbarred! Please, God, don’t let me get disbarred.”
I had all these thoughts as the Lipkin family sat on my friend’s office couch and told me that they were about to lose their home. These people trusted me more than I trusted myself. God help us both.
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