Bankruptcy expert talks about Chapter (11) and verse of recent plight of City of Detroit

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

He calls it his “15 minutes of fame.”

In reality, it lasted much longer, nearly 13 hours to be exact.

Traces of it continue to this day, seemingly prompted each time that a local or national media outlet needs someone to make sense out of the baffling world of bankruptcy, particularly as it most recently applied to the financial plight of the City of Detroit.

Doug Bernstein, an attorney with Plunkett Cooney and an alumnus of Detroit College of Law (now Michigan State College of Law), was the “go to guy” for the legal skinny on Chrysler and GM’s journey through bankruptcy proceedings. It was not a role that the Royal Oak resident envisioned when he woke up to news of Chrysler’s filing for Chapter 11 protection on April 30, 2009.

“It started at 7 a.m. and just mushroomed from there,” says Bernstein of the media onslaught that historic day for one of Detroit’s Big Three. “There was just no let-up, one interview seemed to lead to another and another. It was an interesting experience, to say the least.”

It was such a rush that Bernstein is hard-pressed to remember who called first about the unprecedented move by Chrysler, which also was seeking to align itself with Italian automaker Fiat in a multi-faceted attempt at survival. It may have been radio station WWJ in Detroit that was first in line for a Bernstein comment, but then again it could have been Bloomberg, the national financial news network.

“That day is a bit of a blur,” he admits. “What I remember is that I did 11 interviews that day, including three live radio broadcasts, two live TV spots, one taped radio, and the rest for print publications. I was doing interviews in my car going from one broadcast site to another. It was a whirlwind.”

Locally, he was on the air with Guy Gordon of WDIV-TV of Channel 4 in Detroit, all the while supplying insight for Frank Beckmann of WJR and Jeff Gilbert of WWJ. Interspersed were interviews with The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, and radio personality Mitch Albom, all picking his brain for interesting nuggets on a subject that was sending shudders throughout the auto industry and financial markets worldwide.

He was accommodating, accessible, and quotable, helping listeners, viewers, and readers make some sense out of a troubling development. In retrospect, he acknowledges, perhaps too accommodating.

In the midst of the morning, Bernstein fielded a call from a reporter at CNN, asking if he would be willing to meet a camera crew for a live interview outside a Chrysler stamping plan on Mound Road in Warren. The interview, not so coincidentally, came within minutes of when hundreds of Chrysler workers were told to head home as news of the bankruptcy filing and the accompanying ­economic ­uncertainty spread.

“The CNN camera crew was there, parked outside the Mound Road facility, in a rented Nissan truck as waves of Chrysler workers started leaving the plant, walking by this foreign made vehicle,” Bernstein relates, still wincing at the memory. “It was not a pretty picture. They were letting fly with profanities left and right, calling us every name in the book. With each passing minute it seemed to get worse as more workers kept leaving the plant. I wish I would have said ‘no’ to that interview request.”

Fortunately, all that Bernstein had to duck were some choice comments, brickbats but no bricks. Since then, he has continued to be in demand regularly weighing in on the bankruptcy travails of giant companies.

“At last count, I did more than 125 interviews that year,” says Bernstein of 2009, year two of the Great Recession. “The interviews covered the spectrum. I never knew quite what they would be asking. It was an education, not only for them but for me.”

His education was forged at Southfield High School and then Wayne State University.

His mother was one of his biggest boosters when he decided to attend law school in January 1979 at Detroit College of Law, back then located at a site that is now home to Comerica Park. A year later he would land a clerking job at Michigan National Bank.

Bernstein eventually would spend 21 years at Michigan National, handling a variety of lending, business transaction, and bankruptcy matters. His career as an in-house attorney was a “great experience,” he says, helping him develop an expertise in a field where he now sports a national reputation.

“At the bank, you took a case from beginning to end, from pleadings, to trial, to appellate work,” he says. “It was your baby from start to finish.”

As such, he was involved in a string of cases surrounding some of the Detroit area’s most prominent dining establishments, The London Chop House and Joe Muer’s, a pair of once proud restaurants that fell into financial trouble.

“We ended up closing the doors on the London Chop House (in 1991,” Bernstein says of the downtown eatery that in its heyday was rated by James Beard, the so-called “dean of American cookery,” as one of the top 10 restaurants in the country. “It was pretty much the same for Joe Meur’s. The loans were not being met.”

Within a year after Michigan National was acquired by Standard Federal Bank in 2001, Bernstein joined Plunkett Cooney, later becoming managing partner of the firm’s Banking, Bankruptcy and Creditors’ Rights Practice Group. In a sign of the economic times, his legal group grew markedly during the recession, adding nearly a dozen lawyers in the firm’s six-office operation in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.

Bernstein’s wife, Amy, a legal secretary whom he met while working at Michigan National, has been similarly amazed at the number of times that he has been asked to comment publicly on a bankruptcy matter. She and their daughter, Lisa, have helped Bernstein with tips in delivering his message.

“The basics – sit up straight, talk slowly, speak in measured tones,” he says. “They are helpful reminders, especially when you’re doing a live TV interview where you sometimes only get one chance to convey your thoughts and to make the right impression.”

Building off his role with the media during the GM/Chrysler bankruptcy proceedings, Bernstein was even busier in 2013 when news broke of a certain city going broke.

“In 2013, by our tracking, I did about 400 interviews regarding the Detroit bankruptcy, and served as an analyst for WDIV and WJR,” Bernstein notes. “Dennis Cowan of our firm and I represented the Ford Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan in connection with the ‘Grand Bargain.’”

Last month, Bernstein was named the new chairman of the HI Unlimited Hydroplanes and will oversee HI Unlimited Hydroplane events across the nation, including the UAW-GM Spirit of Detroit HydroFest on the Detroit River next summer.

In addition, he has served as a board member of the Detroit River Regatta Association, Detroit Riverfront Events, and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

“I went to my first Gold Cup race in 1969 and I’ve been hooked since,” he says. “Probably the only other sport that I’m as passionate about is Michigan football.”
 

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