Behind every collection call is a person. This person, much like the consumer, has a fascinating personality, hobbies and a story. Joseph I. Terkell, Esq. of The Terkell Law Firm is plentiful on all three counts. Terkell explains how rock and roll, Coney Island carnival games and chance encounter with a friend changed his life and made him a debt collection lawyer.
Even as a very small child, I can remember always loving music. My father would lovingly place his Nat King Cole, Perry Como or Frankie Laine LP’s on the turntable and derive great pleasure from enjoying his music with him. Later on, as I was coming of age in the late ‘60 s, music was truly king and its rock icons were like gods to the Woodstock Nation. I was by no means immune to their captivation, and, as a sixteen year old kid without a car, I managed to hitchhike as far as Monticello, New York, in my quest to reach the iconic music festival. I had the unique privilege of being able to see my idols, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and scores more on the stage of The Fillmore East, in the heyday of rock impresario, Bill Graham. I set the bar very high indeed in seeking to emulate those musical giants. Sadly it is highly unlikely I will ever attain the level of genius on the guitar I was so privileged to bear witness to, but I have fun trying. Until such improbable time as I achieve that enlightened plateau of guitardom, I remain a collection attorney and a guitar collector.
Much as my love for music has always drawn me from a very early age, the same cannot be said for the practice of law in the collection arena. I have known many collection attorneys in my 35 years of practice, and I do not remember even a single one of them ever having uttered the words, “I always wanted to be a collection attorney, and finally, my dream has come true!” The truth be told, I never even aspired to be an attorney at all and only became a member of the bar through a happenstance.
Having grown up in Coney Island, I found myself managing a block of group games in the amusement park after graduating college. Frankly, I found it to be quite invigorating working outdoors in the salty ocean air with the many, many people there to have a good time. The hours were long, but we did have a very good time!
During the sunny summer days throngs of beachgoers crowded the midway to go on the rides, play the games as well as eat hotdogs and french-fries while drinking soda, beer and the ilk. When night fell, the crowds grew even more populous, and the people were wall-to-wall and elbowto- elbow. More of the same activities as in the afternoon, but with fireworks above the boardwalk and romance below.
What, me? Law School?
Between the sunny days and the sultry nights there was as sort of eerie quietude when the throngs of day trippers went home, and most everyone else was elsewhere having dinner. It was at this time of day that my friend Bobbie would come “down below” to walk his dog after returning from his job and visit my partner and I. Bobbie showed up one day, and asked if Louie and I would like to join him in taking a law school admission test preparatory course. We, in unison, told him to go away; but he did not. Instead he came back every evening coaxing and cajoling us with entreaties as to how much fun it would be. A week or two went by, and one day, Bobbie rolled up in his brand new convertible Corvette Stingray. He added to his otherwise persuasive inveigling, that we could drive to the course in the Corvette, and go out cavorting afterwards. Louie never capitulated, but finally Bobbie wore me down, and the two of us took the law school admission test preparatory course, and ultimately the test itself.
I have always done very well on standardized tests, especially the non-subject specific logic based exams. If there was a scholarship to be won, I usually was able to take away the prize. Unfortunately, Bobbie was not similarly blessed with this natural acumen for test taking. Long story short, I did very well on the test but Bobbie, not so much. Bobbie was devastated by this denial of his dream to become a lawyer and we did not see him too much for a while.
June melted into July, and Bobbie reappeared one evening, inquiring as to which law schools I had applied. I replied I had not applied anywhere at all. Bobbie went ballistic! He could not believe that I was being granted the singular opportunity he so craved and I was throwing it all away. He was not going to have any part of that scenario. A day or two later Bobbie once again appeared, but this time armed with an admission application to New York Law School. He was quite agitated that all of the other New York law schools had already closed admissions, and this was the only school left with rolling admissions. Not to be denied a small part in the process of his fading dream, Bobbie had me fill out that admission form right there on the counter of Sid’s All Night You Deal Electronic Poker Game. Making it clear I was not to be trusted with the task, he took the completed application and promised to mail it in the morning.
The summer idyllically sweltered along, with scant little more thought afforded Bobbie’s vision until I received a call down at the games from my mother who advised me I had been accepted to law school. Talk about culture shock! Almost overnight, I went from carousing on the Bowery, to cramming in the law library. Somehow, I turned my life around overnight, and reinvented myself. There can be no denying I loved the free-wheeling life in Coney Island, but my odds at longevity greatly increased that fateful day Bobbie shared his dream with me. I decided if I was going to do this thing, I was going to go whole hog. I went to both summer school sessions between the regular school years, and graduated in two and a half years.
While all of this was transpiring, my sister’s best friend married a prominent collection attorney in Manhattan. He gave me my first clerking job in a law firm. As time progressed, my sister’s husband (also an attorney) and her friend’s husband became fast friends and ultimately partners in a legal collection practice. As I was racing through law school and clerking at the firm the partners offered me my first job as an attorney. Partners came and went, and eventually I became a partner myself. Now, 35 years later, I stand before you with my own collection law firm. This is what I know how to do, and I would like to think that I do it well. I could still shill at Coney Island along with the best, but that is ancient history now.
Legal Collections Practice
Changing gears just a bit now, to address the actual collection practices and the challenges faced in an increasingly hostile environment, I have become somewhat disheartened with the level of animus with which we in the industry are treated and perceived. It is not news to anyone the collection industry is the unloved stepchild of the greater business and legal community. That is, of course, until someone needs our help in collecting their hard-earned receivables. Even then, we sometimes get no respect. Clients keep pressuring forwarders for lower and lower rates, and forwarders, in turn, have to pass the pain along to the collection attorneys.
Some time ago I was commencing a trial in a very hard and long fought collection litigation when my client whispered to me in court they had continued to do business with the debtor/defendant through the entire course of the case and wished to discontinue the action as well as exchange release without any recovery whatsoever. Dumbfounded, I inquired why would they even consider such a proposition after such a hard fought battle. The response I received was profound, and I have never forgotten it:
“Sales is the tail that wags the dog!”
Honorable and Worthwhile
We operate within the space afforded us by our clients, and our collective job is to keep them happy and to try to make a living in the process. Although we may be held in low regard by the general public, I believe creditors and the collection community are overwhelmingly comprised of honest and generally nice people. Creditors do not simply invent debt that does not exist for the diabolical purpose of pursuing innocent strangers. Likewise, no collection attorney I know would ever pursue litigation against someone whom they felt was not a legitimate debtor. There are a few bad apples in every barrel, but I find that, overwhelmingly, the collection professionals I deal and associate with are decent, nice people with true moral compasses. These are hardworking souls trying to do the right thing without trampling upon others’ dignity. I count myself amongst that lot, and for that reason I can proudly profess to be a collection attorney. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I know we are part of an honorable and worthwhile undertaking that, in the end, champions the rights of the righteous whom have been taken advantage of many times by those of far weaker moral fabric. Even when it is abundantly clear that such is the case in a particular instance, I do my utmost to treat these people with dignity and respect, even when they have proven they are not worthy of it.
Although much of the day-to-day operation of a collection practice occurs almost on automatic pilot, that is certainly not always the case. I am currently handling a case in which one brother is suing the other for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which are being shielded through layer upon layer of corporations and limited liability companies. Selecting the proper avenue for convincing the court it is appropriate to disregard these legal entities and pierce the corporate veil, is by no means a routine affair. Likewise, obtaining temporary restraining orders against these companies without exposing the client (and my firm) to liability in the process can be a delicate maneuver.
The need for a practicing collection attorney to continue his or her ongoing legal education cannot be overstated. Although I personally feel NARCA and the Commercial Law League of America have in large part abandoned their core values of servicing the small to mid-sized collection firm, they continue to remain a good source for obtaining necessary continuing legal education, and staying abreast of legislation and seminal court rulings which affect our day-to-day practice.
Likewise, it is important that the collection practice is bolstered by an appropriate modicum of technology, balancing cost with return on investment. My firm has found that Simplicity Software makes good sense for us in managing our files. We turn to Tracers, TLO and LexisNexis for assistance in locating debtors and their assets, and to the later for legal citation support as well.
Although the collection practice could easily consume every wakeful minute of my life (and some sleeping minutes as well), when I am finished working hard, I try to find a little time to play hard as well. David Crosby (Crosby, Stills, Nash and The Byrds) has stated that one cannot be at home on the guitar until they have played a minimum of 20,000 hours. I do not believe I have achieved that threshold yet, but I keep plugging (and plucking) away. When I finally have ‘got blisters on my fingers, I find freedom in riding my motorcycle. It is more like flying than actual flying because you are right out there amongst the elements and rapidly changing scenery. The wind in your face, tinged with the element of fear and danger is totally exhilarating. You are out there alone achieving a Zen-like experience without staying still in a seated lotus position. My quadruple spinal fusion keeps me from going as far and as long as I might otherwise like to but I do manage to find country roads that take me right through Norman Rockwell’s America. I am blessed to live rather close to Harriman State Park, which is always a lovely venue for a day trip. You could go on the same route in your car, but so much of the sights, sounds, smells and feel are overlooked when you are in your climate controlled stereophonic bubble. My regular riding buddy keeps trying to convince me to go to the Laconia Motorcycle Rally in New Hampshire. My spinal issues have prevented me from going in the past. Perhaps it will happen this spring; but for right now, it is back to the practice of collection law!