When I woke up in the morning, I wasn’t planning on spending part of the day in a courtroom. But, just before lunch, with a few hours in the afternoon free, I decided to figure out what was going on in bankruptcy court that day and, if possible, sit in on a few proceedings. I went to the website for the United States Bankruptcy Court For the District of Arizona and determined there were a few proceedings scheduled for 1:30 that afternoon. So, I did what any wanna-be bankruptcy scholar would do, I got in the car and drove downtown to the courthouse.
Parking in downtown Phoenix is a nightmare and it’s expensive. Although the garage charged $1 for every 20 minutes, I figured it was a bargain considering what I might learn observing court. Even a domestic beer costs $3 at a cheap bar, and I figured an hour of bankruptcy court observation was better for my health. Ok, I wasn’t certain but I thought it was possible.
As I walked through the front doors of the building that is home to the court, I approached the security booth and metal detectors. I told the two guards I was a recent law school graduate and here to listen to some “bankruptcy stuff.” They laughed and asked me exactly what I wanted to hear, informed me that the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel was in town for one day and one day only, and that it was my lucky day. Three hearings would start in an hour.
I was surprised how friendly the guards were and how much they knew. In the past day, after speaking with other lawyers, I have learned it’s that way in many courts around the country. I asked the guards whether they had a lot of visitors attend court on a regular basis and was notified that it was usually only the parties involved, and an occasional law student, but that, by and large, they received no outside visitors. I was surprised not many aspiring bankruptcy practitioners would take the initiative to attend court. Especially in downtown Phoenix, a metro area that is home to 5 million people (the 5th largest city in the country) and that covers 600 square miles (bigger than Los Angeles). What a great resource, free of charge. I can’t imagine many that might be better.
As I waited in the hallway outside the courtroom for the hearings to start, a woman came out of the court room to check the operability of the doors. One of the two doors wouldn’t open, so she hoped the court’s attendees would figure out to use the other door. We made some small talk and she told me she was the clerk for the BAP, that they are based out of Pasadena and have no court room, they’re sort of a floating court with no home. She was very kind and engaging, and I definitely felt welcome being there.
I entered the court room about twenty minutes before the time scheduled for the first hearing. The lawyers and other parties subsequently trickled in and shortly after the clock struck 2:00 the first case was quickly underway. The Appellant was given 15 minutes to argue his case, the Appellee 15 minutes to argue his, and each was given the opportunity to reserve time to respond, typically 5 minutes.
The hearings went like clockwork. As the parties argued their respective positions, they were peppered with questions from the judges. As a spectator sitting in the back of the room, and as a know-nothing, soon-to-be lawyer, the process seemed expeditious but not necessarily easy. Most of the lawyers knew their cases cold but were probed by the judges on both small factual details and also larger policy issues. The three hearings – varying widely in subject matter and including cases on dischargability, bankruptcy court jurisdiction, and lien priority – were over in under two hours. Times flies when you are having fun.
Sitting in on court was enjoyable and I plan on doing it again, perhaps regularly. I believe it’s an invaluable resource to aspiring bankruptcy lawyers who want to learn at the highest level. After all, cases are in court because there are disputed issues and they’re important enough to the parties that they litigate them. One of the cases on appeal, concerning a debtor hindering creditor collection efforts and consequently losing his discharge, was litigated for four days in the lower court. I would encourage other aspiring practitioners to sit in on any bankruptcy proceedings that they are able to. I don’t think there are too many, if any, better uses of your educational time.
Mr. Malik is a law student at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Prior to law school, Mr. Malik worked in real estate private equity and investing banking for various firms in New York and Washington, D.C.