Find Your Motivation — Whatever It Is
Remember the scene in the movie “Blow,” where Johnny Depp’s boyhood character attends bankruptcy court with his father, then the voice-over says something like “I decided right then and there that/that would never be me?” While I wholeheartedly disagree with the path the main character eventually took, I do identify personally with that line. I made the same promise to myself at the age of ten when I saw my parents file for bankruptcy and divorce in the same year. In a nutshell, I got scared of failure, worked hard, attended college and law school, graduated with tons of debt, started a law firm in 2001, worked my way out of debt, and in the meantime learned a lot from the hundreds of folks who were my bankruptcy and business clients. Perhaps the most important thing they taught me was this: while it is important to help good people with their problems, it is equally important that they not become repeat clients. I learned from them, and now I hope you can too.
What follows are five (not-easy-to-master) patterns of behavior that if followed, or avoided, will help keep you out of bankruptcy court.
1. If you do not have a strategy, you are merely part of someone else’s. Someone told me this in about ninth grade and it really stuck with me. It has proven true time and time again in my experience. The earlier you begin to control your destiny (whether through formal education, apprenticing at your mother’s company, or practicing harder and better than everybody at your chosen sport), the better equipped you are to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and goals as early as possible. Parents, if you are reading this, please help your children explore and develop their strategy as early as you feel appropriate. It may save them a visit to my office one day. Most people I interview “fall” into some line of work, then feel pigeon-holed or controlled by someone for the rest of their lives. Don’t let this happen to you. The light at the end of the tunnel is this: when you truly like what you do, it doesn’t feel like work at all. Success — whether or not monetary — will follow. Developing your personal strategy is the cornerstone to your own freedom and success.
2. Always, always, always maintain your medical insurance. Nearly all of the bankruptcies I have filed for clients included some sort of medical debt; too often and sadly for elderly clients on a fixed income. One fact that constantly haunts me is that most of us are only one minor surgery away from personal, catastrophic, financial failure. Therefore, in my opinion, top-of-the-line medical insurance should be as high a priority to any person as their rent/mortgage payment. You’ll know the right insurance policy for you when you see it. The internet makes it too easy not to research every aspect of your medical insurance, so there are no excuses. Finally, try your best to maintain adequate savings to pay for medical insurance for several months — as a bridge — if you fall on hard times.
3. Avoid student loans if at all possible. I recognize this is a lot easier said than done. I attended college and law school, in part, through student loans. In fact, as recently as five years ago I rarely gave this advice to clients. However, more and more friends and potential clients seek my advice on getting out of student loan debt. The surprise comes when I advise them “almost never does the bankruptcy court allow you to discharge/extinguish student loan debts. There are cases, but they are few and far between.” As a solution, be very creative. Consider all of your options: a generous relative; loans from your parents or friends that you work and pay off during winter and summer breaks; work/study programs. (As a side note, be very careful about the “college” or “program” you attend. Do not succumb to high-pressure sales tactics designed to enroll you. A recent phenomenon is the person strapped with massive student loan debt from a school that provided worthless education/training and, thus, a worthless diploma and non-existent job opportunities. These schools have been popping up all over during the last ten years, and they are a great disservice to our young people. When in doubt, do tons of research, or if you are lacking college prerequisites get your start at a reputable junior college.) If you are currently suffering high student loan debts, get on the horn and start talking to loan consolidation companies. I used a company called Great Lakes (don’t know if they are still in business or not). If you anticipate borrowing, only borrow what you absolutely need. Student loans should not be seen as a source of fun money (so often justified as “for living expenses”). Student loans used for fun are a speeding train headed downhill with no brakes. The end of the line is a bankruptcy attorney’s office — and the subsequent bad news that he/she more than likely cannot do anything for you.
4. Do not have a credit card with a limit over $1000 until you are working full-time in an area consistent with your chosen career path. Enough said. Ten years ago, this would have been number two on the list. More and more, potential clients today present medical and student-loan debts, so this tip falls to number four. Nevertheless, it is still very important. Sticking to this would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights early in my career.
5. The world so often is about “who you know.” No matter your age or career-stage, if you have finally set your mind to a particular career path, do everything you can to meet and work alongside those who are the best at it. This can take many forms: a volunteer position; “shadowing” someone for a day or longer; attending a meet-and-greet or public speaking engagement held by your future mentor; an internship; a work/study program; part-time employment; full-time employment; and so on. Be very creative. Successful people I have met through the years often got their start working for people whose positions they aspired to (e.g., we’ve all heard about the CEO who started in the mailroom). Believe me, they are out there — they tend to be humble so you rarely know them when you meet them. Also, relatives, close friends, in-laws, or family connections are another great way to get a start. I have seen many highly qualified professionals with the best credentials passed up for a well-liked friend or friend-of-a-friend. If you chose to work for or with someone (as opposed to self-employment), the best position is as the highly qualified, trusted friend and partner/employee.
Since 2001 I have been fortunate to work in other areas of law: trial work, corporate law, even medical malpractice. Some of the most fulfilling moments of my career, however, have come from helping the underdog — the financially-strapped client — get his/her financial life back on track. Still I hear “thanks for the tough talk and plan, it wasn’t easy, but I should have done it the hard way from the beginning.” I always respond . . . “pass it on.”