How I Ended Up on My Career Path as a Bankruptcy Lawyer

From a post I originally wrote on February 27, 2012:

A question that I have gotten some variation of over the years is, “Why did you become a lawyer?”

The path I have taken to this career was not clear, but continuing in it has been easy for me.

I originally went to law school because I was not really sure what I wanted to do, yet thought I could develop some useful skills. I liked to read and write, and there would be plenty of books there. I also liked the idea of developing my speaking and advocacy skills. While in school, I thought I might do something in securities litigation after a summer internship with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and a year clerking for a commercial and securities attorney.

When I graduated from law school in 2000 during a recession, however, jobs were not exactly plentiful. By Labor Day of that year, I had exactly one offer, from a solo practitioner practicing bankruptcy law in downtown Chicago. I convinced myself that was what I had always wanted to do and took the job.

My first boss was well-regarded and well-liked in the community, and easy to work for. I wasn’t paid very much, but I was soon working long hours simply because I loved the work. Being at a small firm, I was immediately given a lot of responsibility. I met with clients and went to court four mornings a week. In my years of practice in Chicago, I occasionally covered quick hearings, but more frequently I was sitting through extended motion sessions which lasted several hours. It was fascinating, and one of the richest learning experiences I have had, to watch other attorneys and judges in action.

The real connection I had with the work was in the sense that I was helping others get back on track. My perspective on the financial struggles of those I met with were enhanced by my own family’s experience growing up. As the oldest daughter of Korean immigrants who had always struggled financially, basic compassion and empathy came naturally to me in counseling people with similar stories.

I still have the cards and letters I received from some of these clients saved in a shoebox on the bookcase near my bed.

Here is the unedited text from a few of them:

[10/02]: Jeana, Just a quick note to say thank you. I hated the fact that I had to make the decision to file for bankruptcy, but, with your help, the process has been (fairly) painless. Again, thanks.

[Undated envelope]: Attorney Kim, Thank you for your help & God bless you. I got my peace of mind and all my worries are gone. Thank you much.

[10/03]: Ms. Kim, Thank you very much! Just for being there is very much appreciated. Thanks a lot.

[11/04]: Jeanna, first I want to thank you for all the help you have given my family and myself with our financial problems. We never thought we would have to go through the things we have these past few years. You have helped us make it through and see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Problems that have been devastating to me, you have made seem not so terrible. It’s comforting to know that someone is willing to go to bat for you. This letter is to let you know that you are greatly appreciated.

[5/05]: My husband and I had a discussion and we will not file chapter 13! We will work it how somehow! You have been most kind. Thank you for listening to me and I wish you well.

When I was leaving for the East Coast, my boss complimented me by saying that I could find a solution in the most grueling or diciest of situations. I think that this has followed me to this day. The understanding gained from my early practice has formed the foundation for my work in the years since. In each bankruptcy case I work with to this day, I still see the stories behind them. In my current practice, I am considered the person to go to when faced with a “problem case” because I will know how to systematically unravel it to find a solution. This skill is rooted in being able to see the story.

I consider it my privilege to work in this area of the law, and look forward to continuing in it in the years to come.

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