Husband. Father. Occasional bagpipe player. Craft beer drinker and proud wearer of the bow tie (though it must have been casual Friday when this photo was taken). This is Minnesota consumer rights attorney Chris Wheaton. Wheaton represents people under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. He sues debt collectors who abuse and harass people who owe debt. In this interview, Wheaton tells us why he became a lawyer, describes a day-in-the-life in consumer rights practice, and gives some advice on starting a solo/small law firm.
Take note: If you’d like to be interviewed as part of this “day-in-the-life” series, hit us up in the comments. We’re looking for lawyers with interesting practices and interesting perspectives.
About the Lawyer
Who are you and where are you from?
Christopher Sean Wheaton. I’m from St. Paul, Minn.
Where did you attend law school?
University of St. Thomas School of Law.
What type of law do you practice?
Federal consumer rights litigation on the side of the consumer.
Where do you practice?
I am a partner with Barry, Slade, Wheaton & Helwig, LLC located in Minneapolis. I practice in Minnesota District Court.
What were you in a prior life?
I was a computer networking analyst with an insurance company in Minnesota for 15 years.
A Day in the Life
Describe a typical day.
I get to work between 8 and 9 am depending on the day. I have two young daughters and drop them at school beforehand. A typical day has me answering phone calls (we don’t employ a secretary, so we take turns answering phones), drafting complaints and discovery requests or responses, filing notices and/or stipulations, reading any new cases published for the day, meeting with clients (both potential and current) as well as looking at ways to market for new business. I leave at 4:30 to spend the evening with my family. I resume working after everyone goes to bed. I will work on Saturday but usually from home and never on Sundays.
How many hours would you say you work per week on average?
How many cases do you have on your plate right now?
I have 6-8 in various stages of active litigation with usually 16-24 waiting in the wings.
How often are you in court?
3-4 times a month on average for various motions and conferences.
Do you suit up every day or do you let your hair down?
I wear a suit 2-3 times a week. I always wear a suit for court appearances, luncheons, CLE and bar events. I will usually wear a suit for the first meeting with a new client but usually not after that. I like my clients to be comfortable and they typically are not when meeting with an overdressed attorney.
Tie or bow tie?
Bow tie. I haven’t worn a necktie since I graduated from law school. The bow tie is a bit of a marketing tool for me. When you try to set yourself apart in a room full of lawyers, you’ve got to have something that makes you different. For me, it’s the bow tie. They are few and far between.
Do you work from home at all or keep it in the office?
Mostly from the office but at home for at least a couple hours every evening during the work week.
What do you do when you work from home?
Draft legal documents, case research, and pre-suit investigation.
What’s the worst “legal emergency” you’ve ever had?
I once had a case dropped in my lap an hour before a housing court hearing. One of my partners was in a pinch and needed someone to go argue a temporary restraining order so that our client could stay in her home pending the outcome of a home equity scam lawsuit. I had about an hour to prepare.
What’s been your worst encounter with a judge?
My worst encounter with a judge (really a housing court referee) was during the temporary restraining order I was trying to secure for our client with the home equity scam. The referee didn’t understand the law and remedies so it was really difficult to explain that our client had a right to stay in the house pending the court action on the equity stripping case. It was very difficult because one of the intricacies of the law is that possession of the home was integral to the underlying equity stripping case.
What’s been your worst encounter with opposing counsel?
Always when the opposing attorney belittles your experience. It’s extremely frustrating to have someone with the same education, license, and responsibility as you to condescend and demean you because they have X amount of years more in practice. That type of behavior sets a pretty nasty tone for the balance of the litigation and can really work against the litigants in the case.
Why did you become a lawyer?
After 15 years in front of a computer, I needed something more fulfilling, something with a mission of services. I’ve always had a natural affinity for politics, law, reason and argument, so a career in law was the next natural step.
What do you think is your best trait or quality as a lawyer?
I’m a pretty down-to-earth guy. You wouldn’t know I’m a lawyer if you’d met me on the street. That leads clients to trust me which fuels my empathy for their situations and zealousness as an advocate.
What could you work on as a lawyer, or be better at?
I tend to internalize loss. If I lose a motion or my case gets dismissed, I tend to take that to heart and internalize the loss as my own. It can be hard to separate the legal case from my own being and sense of worth at times.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment as a lawyer thus far?
I think starting a firm right out of law school and not only surviving but also thriving for 5 years in a distressed legal economy has been a pretty big accomplishment. I’d like to think that having a positive impact on my clients’ lives and financial situations is at the top of that list as well.
Any advice for law students who might consider walking in your shoes?
I would encourage those who are interested in litigation to consider consumer law (my area of practice—suing abusive debt collectors—is a niche within the consumer law umbrella). The practice areas in consumer law are pretty diverse and there are a lot of underserved clients. There’s fair credit reporting, auto repossession, student loan law, bankruptcy, foreclosures, truth in lending, collection actions, etc.
But law students should also understand that going into solo or small firm practice as I did takes time, effort and planning. Solo/small practice cannot be your default position after law school. I would take the time to research what it takes to plan a business, arrange for capital, evaluate hardware and software and find your niche. In addition to practice, I teach Solo/Small Firm Practice at the University of St. Thomas School of Law as an adjunct law professor. If you have access to a similar class, I would highly recommend you take it and use it as an opportunity to draft a solid plan for your practice.
Now, to the Meat: Suing Debt Collectors
Tell me a little about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
The FDCPA proscribes what debt collectors cannot do in the course of collecting consumer debt, as well as the remedies for violating the statute. I bring 2-3 suits a month for clients so I get to meet a lot of really great people. Most don’t know they have any rights in regard to the collection activity giving rise to their visit with me—swearing, threats, and other abuse isn’t allowed under the FDCPA on the part of debt collectors when they come calling.
What kinds of injustice do your clients face?
Typical abuses tend to include embarrassing people by calling third parties (like their workplace, friends, or neighbors) in the collection of the debt. On occasion, consumers are threatened with legal action which the debt collectors cannot or do not intend to pursue. Sometimes my clients are tormented by debt collectors who swear and hurl insults.
On the student loan front, clients in default of federally-backed student loans are continually denied rehabilitation of the loan, are not allowed to enter into a reasonable and affordable payment plan, are required to pay fees and costs not proscribed by law to enter into a payment plan, and lied to about their rights under federal law regarding the collection costs, rights and responsibilities regarding these loans.
What is it you might change about the FDCPA?
The FDCPA most certainly has some teeth, but it could use an update. The damages haven’t kept up with inflation. So they’re just a slap on the wrist for the collection agencies, which see this as just a cost of doing business. I’d like to see the minimum statutory damages increase from $1,000 to a mandatory $5,000 for successful actions to enforce liability. Then I’d like to see that number indexed for inflation. I think that might get the industry to pay more attention to their practices and conform to the law.
How do you earn your fees?
The FDCPA has a fee-shifting provision. What that means is that I front the costs of the litigation for the cases I take and if I’m successful, I get a percentage of any settlement or award at trial.
Do you feel that you make a difference in your clients’ lives?
I feel like I make a difference. By the time my clients come to me they are usually at the end of a long train of abuses at the hands of the collection industry. Most clients just want the abuse to stop. Any monetary damage is just an added benefit.
It’s incredibly satisfying to protect and restore the dignity of consumers. Once you have a few clients who have been abused by debt collectors, you start to see how wide-ranging the abuses are. As you grow in the practice and you are able to bring positive results to consumers, the reward is not only in the ability to make a good living, but the appreciation of the clients who are affected by the outcomes.
What do you love about your job in consumer law?
“Fighting for the little guy,” which is almost a cliché, but it’s true. In the consumer rights realm there are far too many people who have their legitimate rights trampled on by unsavory characters chasing the almighty dollar. It feels great to meet with a client who has been abused, inform them of their rights and fight for them. The appreciation of those at the end of their rope is priceless.
What do you hate about it?
I think the lack of compassion by the defendants in my cases can really wear on me. Generally, the consumer bar here is very collegial so the opposing lawyers are really a good group of people to litigate with. Often though, the defendants themselves have a lack of compassion for the downtrodden that really gets to me. Not being able to see that lawsuits are about real people can be frustrating.
Tools of the Trade
Describe your office space.
We are midway between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis on University Avenue in the Northstar Professional Building at 27th and University in the heart of the University of Minnesota’s Prospect Park neighborhood.
Our office space consists of 8 offices and three conference rooms. We sublet to other consumer rights attorneys and complimentary practices. In my office are all the things you’d expect: a desk, guest chairs, computer, phone, ScanSnap, printer, and postage scale.
What hardware are you running?
A 13” Macbook Pro with retina display is my primary device. I also have an iMac at home, which syncs with my laptop, so if anything ever happens I can be back up and running in a matter of minutes. I also use an iPad mini and iPhone 5.
What software are you running?
Microsoft Word for Mac is my word processor.
I generally use FindLaw for legal research. Occasionally I’ll head over to Westlaw for KeyCiting.
As for case management software, we just haven’t found something we all like. So each of us does something different. I rely on iCal in my Mac to stay on top of case deadlines. I use OfficeTime for Mac to keep track of billing and costs.
Paper or paperless?
We are an almost completely paperless office.
I keep a file for each client but it only holds the intake sheet and retainer. Everything else is scanned and filed electronically. The only reason I keep a paper file is for the visual cue. The file folders sit on shelves in front of me, with all the relevant information I need on them (case name, file number, judges, and statutes of limitation). So at any given time I can look up from my desk and know instantly how many cases are filed, what type of cases they are, which cases are ready to be filed once one settles, and whether I’m getting low on new business.
What do you bring with you to court?
Usually just a portfolio with a pad and pen, a few business cards, and my iPad Mini. All my case files are accessible through the iPad and Dropbox.
What is life outside of work?
I spend lots of time with my wife and kids. They’re my world. We love to spend time at the local pool, attend tons of hockey games (my wife and I are avid high school and NHL hockey fans), and BBQ with friends and neighbors. We tend to spend our time as a family unit, doing things like geocaching, which we’ve done for a couple years and is a lot of fun to do together as a family. On my own, I’ve been learning to play the bagpipe on and off.
I hear you enjoy craft beer. What’s your favorite?
This is probably the toughest question to answer. Anyone who knows me understands that I am a really big fan of craft beer. I’ve been brewing myself for about 20 years. I’m not sure I can narrow it down to just one so here are five: Summit Saga India Pale Ale, Indeed Day Tripper American Pale Ale, Surly Abrasive American Double IPA, Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison, and Harriet Brewing Dark Abby Belgian Double.
Where do you like to drink said beer and/or grab a bite to eat?
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
You can find me at:
And One Final Question
What makes a lawyer great?
A genuine mix of care for their clients, knowledge of the law, healthy skepticism, and ethical practices. That’s all you need.
Thank you, Chris Wheaton!
Once again, if you’d like to be interviewed as part of this “day-in-the-life” series, leave a comment for us below. We’re looking for lawyers with interesting practices and interesting perspectives. Are there any lawyers, for instance, who oppose FDCPA lawsuits out there? We’d love to get your perspective.