Every week at least two homeowners walk into the office of Boston bankruptcy attorney David G. Baker looking to get out from under their mortgage debt. That's an alarming increase for a sole practitioner like himself. "I've never before had clients who walk in and say: `I just can't afford my house anymore,'" he says. "It's a little scary."
Baker needed to bone up on the intricacies of new mortgage products. So he signed up for Bankruptcy Boot Camp, the brainchild of O. Max Gardner III, the go-to guy for consumer bankruptcy attorneys across the country. The idea is to get lawyers familiar with the latest strains of mortgage abuse, then to educate them about federal laws that protect their clients. Baker now knows how to renegotiate mortgages and avoid a foreclosure. "People can ask lenders to restructure their loan," he says. "But that's something they keep from you because it's not in their best interest."
Since Gardner launched the program in August, 82 attorneys have attended the 12-hour-a-day, four-day program held at his 160-acre Lizmere Farm in western North Carolina. It's a family operation: Gardner is the only instructor, and his wife does the cooking. He charges $7,775 a pop, but the lawyers don't seem to mind. Says Kathy Cruz of the Cruz Law Firm in Hot Springs, Ariz.: "It wasn't anything like law school. Boot Camp teaches what you need to know in the trenches."
It sure helped Frank H. Coxwell, a consumer lawyer in Jackson, Miss. Even though he's been practicing for 30 years, Coxwell says he's now able to recognize violations he didn't know existed before going to Boot Camp. Since attending the first session in August, he has 140 cases headed for court, some of which were files he reviewed with a new eye. "Everyone always assumed that foreclosure was the debtor's fault," he says. "The lawyers, the judges, everyone has to be reeducated. You can't believe what we've caught [lenders and mortgage servicers] doing."
It's inevitable that some homeowners get hurt in a downturn, especially those who have to sell unexpectedly and can't ride out the market. But experts say the pain will be broader and deeper this time around. In the past few years, millions of Americans bought homes they couldn't afford, lured by exotic mortgages that advertised no money down and low monthly payments--for a limited time only. As housing prices cratered and interest rates rose, borrowers got squeezed. The result: One in five subprime loans issued in 2005 and 2006 will fail, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
Gardner and his growing cadre of lawyers say the lending system is largely to blame. While some people carelessly got in over their heads, lenders bear responsibility for extending too much credit to unsophisticated borrowers. Worse, abusive players fail to credit mortgage payments, then charge huge late fees. Before the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005, most attorneys just filed the necessary paperwork to work out the inevitable Chapter 13 plans. But Gardner's model advocates scouring for violations that occur during the lending process and while the borrower is in bankruptcy protection. "My goal is to train an army of attorneys to take the fight right to the creditors and their Wall Street aiders and abettors," says Gardner. "They wanted reform, and we're going to give it to them."
The 61-year-old Southerner relishes battle with "tall-building lawyers"--public service is in his blood. He's the grandson of O. Max Gardner, a former North Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to Great Britain under Harry S Truman. His grandfather pushed through a workers' compensation bill during the Great Depression. As a state senator, he broke a tie and gave women the vote, and he was among the first employers in the South to hire African Americans in his textile mill in 1920. "He was severely criticized for both," says Gardner.
By Mara Der Hovanesian