Professor helps students to tame the 'Wild West' of bankruptcy law

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

There's a Wild West component to bankruptcy, says John Pottow, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who specializes in bankruptcy and commercial law.

"Lots of times stuff is just made up on the fly. That's not to suggest it's 'lawless.' It's just that so much is driven by pragmatics over formalism, that I'm drawn to it," Pottow says.

"The drama of failure intrigues me, which is what bankruptcy law is really about. I like the field, as with all commercial fields, because there are incredibly complex and poorly drafted statutes to wade through, but to make sense of them, you have to understand what is the big picture the law's trying to accomplish."

Pottow, a member of the U-M Law School faculty since 2003 and recipient of the L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching, enjoys working with law students and sharing his enthusiasm for matters of trade and business.

"Many are scared off because they think it's going to involve 'numbers,' and they were comp lit majors in undergrad," he says. "This is foolish. Also, most of them will buy a house, so they ought to understand mortgages!"

Students who go on to specialize in the field of bankruptcy law will find it segmented, he says.

"Highly complex 'big ticket' chapter 11 work is a great niche in my view, because companies will always fail," Pottow says. "On-the-ground consumer bankruptcy--chapter 7s and 13s-- might give you more individual contact with clients and personal one-on-one satisfaction, but that work can sometimes burn you out. The laws seem to have become increasingly complex in bankruptcy, so I'm not sure the solo-shop lawyer can dabble in bankruptcy as much as before--this is a pity."

Pottow worked at bankruptcy firms in New York and Boston, where he focused on debtor representation in complex Chapter 11 restructurings.

"I like solving problems," he says. "The more dysfunctional the situation is, the more gratifying it is to help work something out."

Bankruptcy law is not a field that's going away any time soon. Pottow, whose award-winning scholarship concentrates on the issues involved in the regulation of cross-border insolvencies as well as consumer financial distress, sees two rising problems. The first is the deteriorating finances of elder Americans.

"Sifting through the entrails of the bankruptcy courts allows me to predict serious problems in years to come," Pottow says.

"The other time bomb is student debt--it is rising and, unlike credit card debt, is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. I see the debt overhang as serious and market-affecting in the intermediate future."

A member of the prestigious International Insolvency Institute, Pottow has published in prominent legal journals in the United States and Canada, testified before Congress, presented at academic conferences around the world, and frequently provides commentary for national and international media outlets such as NPR, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, and the BBC.

A Canadian by birth, Pottow came to the United States for college, earning an AB in psychology, summa cum laude, from Harvard College; and a JD, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School, where he was treasurer of the Harvard Law Review.

"I find human beings fascinating," he says. "I took Psych 1 in first year undergrad - B.F. Skinner gave his last lecture to my class before he died, which perhaps dates me - and was hooked. I immediately dropped out of English. I got particularly interested in psycholinguistics and the softer end of the field, versus the harder neuroscience end.

"My psychology thesis adviser suggested law school - I found this a disconcerting endorsement of my prospects in psychology," Pottow says.

Pottow has also been an active pro bono litigator whose cases included representing a small bankruptcy party before the U.S. Supreme Court; and a gender-based asylum seeker from Afghanistan in U.S. Immigration Court.

"It's not a happy story: a good chunk of her family were murdered by the Taliban before most people in this country knew who they were," he says. "She got smuggled out by an uncle and, the last time I talked to her, had no idea what happened to many other family members. She now has kids and lives in Brooklyn. The world we live in is amazing."

Pottow, who clerked for the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of Canada, and the Hon. Guido Calabresi, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, is licensed as a barrister and solicitor in Ontario and as an attorney in Michigan and Massachusetts. He has held dual citizenship for several years - with an EU passport in there too just for good measure. But Ann Arbor has been his home for almost a decade, where he enjoys being among the maize and blue.

"I like U-M in particular because the faculty is very engaged in colleagues' work regardless of their area of expertise," he says. "In many schools, most people specializing in constitutional law wouldn't waste what they perceive as their precious time reading and discussing work on business law. Not so at U-M. I have a colleague who studies what I will simplify as legal history who is fascinated by the mechanics of the interchange fees of the debit card network. I like that."

In his spare time, Pottow volunteers for a church board and also a local public school PTO in Ann Arbor. He recently started biking again --"at the behest of my son, who wants to be able to keep up with his sister, so I got a bike with a toddler seat on the back. My skills returned quickly. I found it's just like riding a bicycle."

Published: Thu, Jun 7, 2012


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