THE LOSERS

A good bankruptcy lawyer needs three things: a JD, a mind for math and boxes of Kleenex. Interview with Bart Blasengame

NOBODY ever really plans to end up in Ann Chapman’s office. But for 23 years, the bankruptcy attorney with VandenBos & Chapman has held the hands of—and supplied Kleenex tissues to—thousands of Portlanders who have been forced to declare legally that their wells have gone dry. More often than not, it’s a gut-wrenching process for those involved, but bankruptcy, she says, need not be a dirty word. “There’s this idea that people who file are liars and cheats,” she explains. “That’s not been my experience. At their hearts, people are inherently good and deserve a second chance.” Still, you’d probably rather not have a face-to-face with Chapman, one of the city’s top Chapter 13 experts. Herein, a dose of reality—and some straight-up advice—on how to avoid her office altogether and how to cope if you do find yourself there.

 

ON FINANCIAL ILLITERACY: We’ll ask clients to guess what they spend in a month on gas. They’ll say something like 100 bucks. But once you sit down with them and do the math, they’re stunned at how much it really costs. Life goes so fast. It never stops. Your wife gets pregnant. You have kids. Kids need daycare. And the expenses of the small business known as the American household keep growing.

ON THE TEARS OF MEN: I figure 80 percent of the people who come in cry in our first meeting. Grown men. Businessmen. That’s why we keep boxes of Kleenex in the conference room. If you can’t cry with your bankruptcy lawyer, who can you cry with?

ON HER DARKEST DAYS: I’ve probably had seven or eight clients commit suicide. They’re convinced there’s no way out, but it’s just money.

ON PEOPLE WHO OFTEN NEED HER: It’s the guys in their mid-20s to 30s. They’re working in shipping and receiving, making a $600-a-month car payment on some Ford Mustang chick magnet. They get laid off or sick, they get behind on their car payments and their car gets popped. Let me tell you: Buy the beat-up truck instead. It’ll get you there.

ON THE WORSHIP OF PLASTIC: Credit card companies have lulled us into this myth that they perpetuate: “Buy it. You deserve it. Pay the minimum and trust us. We want you paying us as long as you live.”

ON HELPING CLIENTS ACHIEVE ZEN: Bankruptcy lawyers are the helicopter above the forest fire, and sometimes we have to have hard conversations with people. Your business isn’t profitable? Your marriage is failing? Your health, too? Let us give you the big picture: Let it go. The forest is dying. Let it go.

ON THE BEAUTY OF THE FREE MARKET: Bankruptcy is the pressure-release valve of the capitalist system. What we’re doing is recycling entrepreneurs, reconfiguring them and making them smarter. They learn some hard lessons, but let’s not put them in a five-year financial prison.

ON HIGH DRAMA: What I do should be a TV series. There are so many compelling stories that come into our office. Tragedies, victories, shame, times when I’ve been truly touched by my clients. And it’s all real life. I’d call it Broke.

Percentage of Americans below the federal poverty level in 2005: 13.3

Percentage of Portlanders below the poverty level: 17.8