It takes organization, dedication, and passion to balance a full professional schedule and public service activities. Attorney Meg McKenzie Feist ofChoate Hall & Stewart LLP
has managed both, thanks in part to encouragement she received from mentors in her early career to engage with the community. “I’ve learned that if something is important enough, there is always a way to get it done,” she explained. “Now that I’ve internalized those lessons [from my mentors], my work with the bar and my pro bono work are just a part of my routine.”
Feist, whose practice at Choate centers on business bankruptcies and commercial finance, represents individual Chapter 7 debtors on a pro bono basis through theVolunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) of the Boston Bar Association. In addition, she co-chairs the Bankruptcy Section’s Public Service Committee at the BBA, which annually co-sponsors a free training on how to represent a Chapter 7 debtor with the VLP. The training, according to Feist, is “an excellent entry point” to the major aspects of representing a bankruptcy client on a pro bono basis. While many Chapter 7 cases are straightforward, some require addressing special legal issues or sensitive personal issues that underlie the client’s financial difficulties.
Feist reports that representing individual pro bono debtors brings the moral component of bankruptcy sharply into focus:
“When I meet with a pro bono client, it’s clear to me that the person is dealing not just with feelings of disappointment or regret about their financial affairs, but also with questions of a moral character: 'Should I not pay my creditors, even though I said I would? Do I owe it to my spouse and my children, whose futures depend on my financial well-being, to file for bankruptcy?' My experience is that pro bono debtors take these questions very seriously. It’s my job as a counselor to look up from the statutes, rules, forms, and fees, to acknowledge those questions, and to help my client deal with them.”
As a counselor, she also helps pro bono clients navigate some of the tougher aspects of the bankruptcy process, such as the required Section 341 meeting, at which the bankruptcy trustee and creditors are given the opportunity to ask the client questions before the bankruptcy court’s entry of any order discharging his or her obligations. The Section 341 meeting is the only personal contact that most Chapter 7 pro bono clients ever have with the bankruptcy system and can cause them some stress. As Feist puts it, “I feel personally rewarded if I am able to use my knowledge of the process and my interpersonal skills to soften the sharp edges of what is otherwise an uncomfortable situation for my client.”
Undertaking pro bono bankruptcy representation through the VLP is especially useful to junior lawyers who are looking for opportunities to enhance their practical experience, Feist says. But Feist is also very passionate about the broader service aspect of her work with the VLP:
“[P]ro bono work is about equal access to justice. It’s about acknowledging, through action, that the starting line in life is staggered. If a person cannot afford a bankruptcy attorney, there is probably a pretty good reason for that.”
For more information about pro bono opportunities and activities, check out the BBA’s Pro Bono Month Calendar here.