This is a true story, only the client names are changed.
angriest person I ever encountered was in Bronx Small Claims Court. Luz
Calderon had made the unfortunate decision to do one stop wedding
shopping with my client, Banderas Wedding Center (Juan Banderas,
President). Juan's business model was to take his modest catering
operation, and expand it into a Walmart of wedding services. At Banderas
Wedding Center, you could get your invitations, wedding gown,
bridesmaid dresses, tuxedos, photos, videos, limos, honeymoon, band,
rings, and anything else needed for that special day...on a tight
budget. He was a general contractor for nuptuals, using a hapless
collection of cretinous subcontractors.
I don't know how the food
was at Luz' wedding. All I knew was she had not received her wedding
pictures and she was not happy. When Juan first came to my office he
told me he had some "small problems." He showed me six different small
claims cases, three Civil Court cases, one Supreme Court case, and a
friendly letter from the New York Attorney General. Luz Calderon's case
was the fourth time I had gone to court for Juan. Before I went to the
Bronx on Calderon v Banderas, I asked him what happened to Luz' wedding
pictures. He said, "the photographer has them."
Prompting me to ask, "why
doesn't Luz have them?"
"Well, the photographer wants to be paid."
"Why don't you pay him?"
"Well, he wants to be paid on this job, AND all the other jobs."
a lot more prompting, I learned that Banderas owed ALL his
subcontractors, and they were all taking the same position: no
piecemeal payments. Pay in full, or we hold hostages.
photos were powerful hostages, since the customers desperately wanted
them, but this was not prompting Banderas to pay for their release. He
had the trump card, one which many a client has played over the
years: "I don't have the money." He had small amounts of
money - enough to pay me to go to court and defend him "as best as you
can." Sometimes he didn't even come with me. It was me against the
embittered brides. Sometimes I got to joust with the grooms too, though
they always sensed my empathy, not so much for their ruined wedding day,
but for their ruined lives.
Luz told the Judge her
story. I told the Judge my clients story, such as it was. The Judge
wanted to talk to my client, but I had to tell the Judge he "couldn't
make it" that night. The Judge told Luz she would win her case, such as
it was, meaning she would get a judgment which might not be so easy to
collect. The Judge wanted to talk to me privately, off the record. When I
approached he whispered, "what kind of piece of shit, moron, asshole of
a client do you have here?" I wanted to say, "all of the above," but
instead I said, "I'm just trying to represent my client the best I can,
and I realize he is going to lose this case, he surely realizes it too,
but there is a problem in the business." The Judge asked me what I
thought the problem was, and it boiled down to this: The business
had all kinds of claims against it, no money to pay, and the second any
money came in, various creditors were grabbing it. The Judge then gave
me some advice and said, "you can't keep representing him in these individual
cases, you'll end up on one of those consumer fraud TV news shows. This
client should file for bankruptcy."
From the little I knew about bankruptcy, the Judge's advice was
correct. I could not continue defending the wackster on a case by case
basis. We needed to stop the insanity, something I later learned was the
hallmark of EVERY bankruptcy case. Unfortunately, I had never had a
case with bankruptcy issues, nor had I even taken the class in law
school. I only knew of one attorney who was a "bankruptcy attorney," but
I didn't really know him. However, I had always meant to call him, and
here was my chance.
I had never actually spoken to
Barry N. Seidel, but I knew he was a bankruptcy attorney. I knew this
because sometimes people mistakenly called my office looking for him. I
also knew that when I was a freshman at Stony Brook, he was a junior,
and we once accidentally got each others history grades. When the error
was corrected, he got the A and I got the B. So, seeking to refer the
wacky caterer, I made the following phone call:
"May I speak to Barry Seidel, please?"
"Who is calling?"
remembered the grade mix-up in college, but he had not mistakenly been
getting calls from people looking for ME. I told him I was in general
practice, that I had a client who needed a bankruptcy attorney, and I
had heard he did that. He said, "I am a bankruptcy attorney. I work at a
big firm in Manhattan. Right now I'm heavily involved in the
Texaco/Pennzoil bankruptcy. Who would the client be in the case you want
"A wacky caterer."
"I'm not so sure I could get involved in a case like that."
I said, "I know, any chance you could refer me to someone?"
thought about it a bit and said, "I know a guy named Jim Pagano. He
just left a good bankruptcy firm to go out on his own. He'd probably be
able to do a wacky caterer case."
Not only did Jim
Pagano turn out to be a great bankruptcy lawyer who could help the wacky
caterer, he became a trusted colleague and friend to this day. We have
worked on a lot of cases together. I have found that in every area of
practice, a working knowledge of bankruptcy comes in very handy. I have
learned certain little things about bankruptcy that are worth sharing:
1. It is often a very strong card.....particularly when unplayed.
2. Sometimes it's the best and only economic alternative.
3. People resist doing it, but there is usually a "catalyst" that forces them.
As far as negotiating and business skills, it is a very interesting
field, and if I were starting out and looking for something to
specialize in, I would look at this field very seriously.
People often think of bankruptcy as being about the debtor who is
filing, but many bankruptcy lawyers focus on the creditors rights side.
have not spoken to Barry N. Seidel since, but I have always been
gratetful to him for introducing me to Jim Pagano. Here is Barry N. Seidel's impressive bio.
other related story... a few years after the wacky caterer stopped
catering, he called me for some advice. He was managing a restaurant
where a story had been published in El Diario (largest Spanish language
newspaper in New York) saying the restaurant was a drug dealing
location. The story was erroneous and El Diario printed a retraction.
Nevertheless, according to Juan, business was way off. He wanted to know
if anything could be done, and whether the retraction insulated El
Diario from a claim. (OK, he didn't say THAT, but it was what he wanted
to know.) I did not think he was calling me "officially" - meaning he was
not going to PAY for my opinion, but I told him I would "look into it." A pretty stupid thing to offer, I admit, and I regretted saying it, but
this is what I did...
My legal brain knew that I did not know,
which generally prompts me to do MY style of research, which is where I
say to myself, "who can I call?" I categorized this as a "First
Amendment case" because it had something to do with a newspaper. The
only First Amendment lawyer I had ever heard of was Floyd Abrams. If he
were a baseball player, his nickname would have been "Mr. First
So, what I did was, I called Floyd Abrams.
through to a famous lawyer? Call at 7 PM. I got right through. I told
him I was a solo practitioner in Forest Hills and I had this potential
case. He said, "Forest Hills? I went to Forest Hills High School."
So did I.
we shot the breeze for awhile, and eventually he told me the law on
newpaper retractions and liability. I gave the info to the wacky
caterer, but did not tell him who I had called. I did tell all my lawyer
friends though, and they always said the same thing:
"YOU CALLED FLOYD ABRAMS!?!?!?"
Yeah... and I'd do it again too.