John Skiba is a busy man. He’s been married for 15 years, has six kids, and in his spare time runs a hobby farm with chickens and cows and pigs. Oh, and on top of that, he manages to run and market a successful solo law practice. What does he do? He destroys debt and defends people against debt buyers. He helps clients file for bankruptcy under the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act.
In this interview, Skiba recalls his days playing college football in front of thousands of fans, explains why he doesn’t work from home, and clues us in on his go-to manual for those interested in getting into bankruptcy law.
About the Lawyer
Who are you and where are you from?
John Skiba. I grew up in Springville, Utah, and now live in Queen Creek, Arizona, just outside of the Phoenix metro area.
My wife and I have been married for 15 years. We have six kids (yes … six), and live on a small farm on the outskirts of Phoenix where we have three cows (with a calf on the way), 20 chickens, and two pigs.
Where did you go to law school?
The William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
What type of law do you practice?
About two-thirds of my practice is dedicated to consumer bankruptcy and the remaining third is devoted to representing defendants in debt-buyer collection lawsuits.
How long have you been practicing?
What were you in a prior life?
Back in the day I was a guard on the offensive line of the BYU Cougars. It was a great experience—we played in a couple of bowl games, got to travel all over the country playing football in front of 65,000 fans each week. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why practicing law has never seemed quite as glamorous.
A Day in the Life
Describe a typical day.
My workday starts at 8:00. First thing, I usually meet with my legal assistant to review what client meetings I’ve got that day and to get the status of the bankruptcy cases that are still in the preparation stage.
Most days, I have at least two new client consultations, with at least one court hearing. Between those meetings I juggle drafting motions, coordinating the completion of bankruptcy documents, and responding to the dozens of client emails I get during the day. My typical workday ends about 6:00 or 6:30. I really try not to take any work home with me.
So you don’t work from home?
I used to work almost exclusively out my house (with a couple of satellite offices), but I just recently closed down the home office and took on a more traditional office. I liked working from home, but I found it very difficult to keep work from intruding on every aspect of my life.
Time away from the office helps me deal with the stress of law practice. I need time to step away and think about something else. With a home office, you’ll always find an excuse to go and work. There was no boundary between work and home, which wasn’t good for me and my family. The only time I work from home now is if I have a commitment at home with my family that requires that I leave the office earlier than normal.
As a side note, I maintain a couple of blogs for my practice and will often write for those blogs while watching TV at night. I don’t really consider blogging work though.
How many hours would you say you work per week on average?
How many cases do you have on your plate right now?
At any given time I have 50 or so bankruptcy cases at various stages and then approximately 30 litigation matters.
How often are you in court or in front of a bankruptcy trustee?
With my bankruptcy practice I am in court about two times per week and then appear in front of a bankruptcy trustee anywhere from 2-4 times per week.
The consumer defense part of my practice has me in court hearings about twice per week.
What’s the worst “legal emergency” you’ve ever had?
With a bankruptcy practice clients are often in crisis mode due to a pending home foreclosure, a frozen bank account, or a garnished paycheck. Clients come to me on a regular basis with a foreclosure sale set on their home in two days and they need help. I must act quickly if we’re to save the home.
Why did you become a lawyer?
I became a lawyer at the urging of a mentor of mine who was an FBI agent. He said that law was a great way to get into the FBI. So I started law school with that goal in mind. But by the time I finished law school, I had two kids and a good job offer doing litigation with a firm in Arizona, so I took the opportunity.
What do you think is your best trait or quality as a lawyer?
I can relate to clients and empathize with what they’re going through. By the time most of my bankruptcy clients get in touch with a lawyer, creditors and their collection agencies have been beating them up for quite a while. I truly try to create an environment where people can find hope that things will get better.
What could you work to improve on as a lawyer?
Staying on top of everything that has to be done. I never have a moment in my day when I think: “Here we go—I’m all caught up.” There’s always something else that needs doing.
I also tend to internalize my client’s problems. I’ve got to remind myself that I’m here to help with their legal problems, not carry their burdens.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment as a lawyer so far?
Winning my first jury trial. At least, this was the most memorable. It was a civil case. The parties were fighting over a very large real estate commission. After a week of trial I remember sitting there waiting for the jury to announce their verdict. My heart was pounding so hard you’d have thought it was a death penalty case. When the jury announced a verdict in our favor, I looked over at my client, and he had tears running down his face.
Any advice for law students or young lawyers who might consider walking in your shoes?
Walk in a lawyer’s shoes before you make any life-changing decisions. Way too many lawyers go to law school (like I did) without having any idea what it is that a lawyer does all day. Talk to as many lawyers as you can. Find out what they like and don’t like about their practice.
Now, to the Meat: Destroying Debt
Tell me a little about the practice of consumer bankruptcy law.
I really enjoy this practice. It’s one where the general perception is my clients are irresponsible and just racked up a bunch of credit card debt from extravagant living.
But, for the most part, this just isn’t true. Most of my clients have done everything they could to avoid bankruptcy. They come to me only when they’ve got no other options. You took the risk of starting a business that didn’t work out, you have mountains of medical bills because of an accident or illness, or you simply lost your job, aren’t bringing in any income, can’t make ends meet.
The best part of bankruptcy practice is the ability to give people hope. Your life will get better. There is an end to your struggle.
What kinds of “injustice,” if that’s the right word, do your clients face that lead them to consider bankruptcy?
Many of my clients file for bankruptcy after finding out that a judgment has been entered against them. It truly is shocking how many default judgments are entered against consumers without consumers having a clue that a lawsuit was even filed.
Now, I do understand that the rules of civil procedure allow for alternative service when a defendant cannot be located. But in many cases I think there was little effort put in to actually locate the defendant prior seeking the default—and then, unsurprisingly, after default judgment has been entered, many creditors are suddenly able to find a good address to send the judgment and garnishment documents.
What kind of debt do you destroy on a regular basis?
Most of the bankruptcy filings that are done are Chapter 7 cases which are particularly good at eliminating credit card debt, medical debt, and really most unsecured debts.
With my debt-buyer consumer litigation practice I have a very good record in eliminating debts that debt buyers allegedly purchased from the original creditor. It’s shocking how little evidence debt buyers file suit with. Often I am able to get these cases dismissed with prejudice.
What is it you might change about bankruptcy law or practice?
The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) was put in place to address perceived abuses of the system. I say “perceived” because I don’t think abuse of the bankruptcy system is or was anywhere near what people thought. My clients don’t really want to file bankruptcy. Most of them have a hard time uttering the word. They’re embarrassed about their situation but don’t see any other way out.
Overall, I think the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process works pretty well. The Chapter 13 process, at least in Arizona, has a lot to be desired. The success rate nationwide for Chapter 13 cases is surprisingly low—I’d like to see that change.
How do you earn your fees?
Legal fees are regulated by the bankruptcy court. Each jurisdiction has what they call a “no look” fee. Essentially it’s a flat fee that attorneys are allowed to charge for a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 without being forced to seek court approval.
In Chapter 7 cases the full fee is paid prior to the bankruptcy case being filed. In Chapter 13 cases, a portion of the fee is paid up front prior to the filing of the case, with the balance paid out by the bankruptcy trustee from funds that my client pays for distribution to creditors.
Also, I’ve moved to flat fees with my consumer debt litigation. I used to bill hourly but found that clients didn’t like the uncertainty and I didn’t like the headache in chasing down money. Flat fees eliminate both of these issues. I typically require the entire fee to be paid up front.
Do you feel that you make a difference in your clients’ lives?
Yes. Bankruptcy is a powerful tool. I remind my clients of that. Regardless of how or why the debts were incurred, bankruptcy generally eliminates them. It’s a cliché, but bankruptcy really does provide a “fresh start” for people. There aren’t many other areas of life that allow you to hit the reset button like bankruptcy does.
What do you love about your job?
I really enjoy the challenge of running and growing my own business. With bankruptcy you don’t really have repeat customers, so there is a constant challenge of bringing in new business. I really enjoy learning about practice management and the marketing of a law firm.
What do you hate?
Dealing with lawyers and trustees who make the entire process much more miserable than it has to be—I have never understood those lawyers who insist on making a legal dispute personal and creating conflict where there doesn’t need to be any conflict.
Tools of the Trade
Describe your office space.
I’ve got a traditional small-firm space with two attorney offices and an office for my paralegal. I currently sublet one of the offices to another attorney. I also have two satellite offices in other cities in the Phoenix metro area with conference rooms for client meetings.
What hardware are you running?
I have tried to keep things mobile. I have an HP laptop, iPad, iPhone, and a Fujitsu scanner.
For my bankruptcy practice I use Best Case for the preparation of the petition and schedules. I also use MyEcfMail, software that downloads my court filings from the bankruptcy court each day.
Paper or paperless office?
I try to be as paperless as possible. I do not maintain any hard files. I only get copies of documents from clients. We scan them and then shred the physical copies. All documents are stored in Dropbox.
What do you bring with you to a trustee hearing or other type of conference?
Typically the only thing I bring to hearings with the court or the bankruptcy trustee is my iPad and Zagg keyboard. I access files online through Dropbox.
What’s your go-to handbook or primer for someone interested in getting into bankruptcy practice?
Without question the bankruptcy Bible is the Consumer Bankruptcy Law and Practice manual by the National Consumer Law Center.
What do you do outside of law practice?
Most of my life outside work is dedicated to my family. Six kids and a farm—with snorting pigs—keep you busy.
I also produce two podcasts. One is Consumer Warrior, which I use as a way to get information to the general public on consumer debt issues. It’s been a great marketing tool for my practice. The other is a podcast called JDBlogger, which is devoted to sharing information on marketing a law practice through blogging, social media, and podcasting. I interview people who I think do a great job in a particular area of marketing or who have skills associated with marketing.
Favorite spots in Phoenix or greater Arizona?
People outside of Arizona (even a fair number of people who live here) don’t know that there’s a large forest of ponderosa pines (part of the Coconino National Forest) where the temperature is usually about 30-50 degrees cooler than in Phoenix. It’s located a couple hours northeast of here.
And up by the Utah/Arizona border is Lake Powell—arguably the most beautiful man-made lake in the U.S.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
- Email: email@example.com
- Twitter: @johnskiba
- Website: skibalaw.com
- JDBlogger Podcast: jdblogger.com
- JDBlogger in iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/jdblogger-legal-marketing/id586215237?mt=2
And One Final Question
What makes a lawyer great?
To be a great lawyer, you’ve got to be constantly learning. You’ve got to follow the ethical rules. And you’ve got to know your limitations. You can’t fix every problem and not every case will turn out the way you’d like. But what keeps you going is the belief that you can truly help people who desperately need it.
Thank you, John Skiba!