Goal IX Newsletter

Fall 2005, Volume 11, Number 1

Diversity in Consumer Justice: by Anthony Rodriguez

Anthony Rodriguez

Have you considered specializing in consumer law? Are you aware that there are more than 2000 lawyers nationwide who have consumer law practices? Most of these practices are thriving and many are lucrative. Among these 2000 advocates there is a small but growing number of minority attorneys who effectively advocate on behalf of consumers and successfully take on large and small financial institutions, credit card companies, credit reporting agencies, retail creditors, debt collectors, automobile dealers and others who seek to deprive consumers from hard earned financial assets.

The practice of consumer law affects all consumers at every income level, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Moreover, some racial and ethnic groups are more likely to be victims of consumer fraud than others. A study released by the Federal Trade Commission in 2004 found that "[B]oth Hispanics and African Americans were more than twice as likely to be victims of consumer fraud as non-Hispanic whites." The results of the FTC survey are consistent with other findings that show minorities are more likely than whites to receive subprime loans and be subjected to predatory practices. Studies have shown that low-income African-Americans received 2.4 times as many subprime refinancing loans as whites with comparable incomes. The same is true for Hispanic borrowers.

Consumer advocates increasingly find that their clientele is disproportionately people of color. "My clients are disproportionately African-American, Hispanic and single women," said Lisa Wright, an African-American practicing consumer law in Atlanta. Mark A. Chavez, who practices consumer law in the San Francisco Bay area, also has found that his consumer clients are typically African-American, Latino or Asian-American. Another sign of the increase in consumer fraud and its impact on minorities is the FTC's decision to launch a Spanish language consumer fraud awareness campaign, Mantente alerta contra el fraude. Infórmate con la FTC ("Be on the alert against fraud. Stay informed with the FTC"). The campaign is intended to encourage Spanish speakers to identify fraudulent and deceptive business practices and for consumers to complain to the FTC when they occur. The outreach campaign complements the agency's enforcement initiative against frauds targeting Hispanic consumers.

These developments and the FTC survey results reflect the need for stepped up consumer advocacy and legal representation in minority communities - a need that has never been greater.

Support Network for Attorneys Practicing Consumer Law

Many attorneys who are new to the practice of consumer law are surprised to find a network of consumer attorneys who readily provide mentorship, expertise and litigation support on complex and wide ranging consumer legal issues. The foundation for this network is two nonprofit organizations, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA). NCLC, headquartered in Boston, is the leading national expert on legal and policy issues concerning low income consumers. It is best known for its advocacy on public policy matters affecting the legal needs and rights of low income consumers, and its 16-volume legal practice series on consumer, energy and public utility law. NCLC also conducts an annual consumer rights litigation conference. NACA is a membership organization of about 1000 individuals committed to representing consumer interests. Its members are private and public sector attorneys, legal services attorneys, law professors, and law students. Both of these organizations provide a network in which attorneys are encouraged to use, contribute to, and expand consumer education and advocacy. Both provide training and educational materials, referrals, advice and counsel, and practical guidance on how to practice consumer law. NCLC also publishes "The Practice of Consumer Law - Seeking Economic Justice," which comes free with a NACA membership.

Attorney Wright says that NACA has provided her with invaluable help. "I can get sample pleadings, court orders, case evaluations and discuss case strategy with experts in the field and my fellow members of NACA. This has been a tremendous help." Attorney Sonya Smith-Valentine, an African-American practicing consumer law in the metropolitan DC area, found the practice of consumer law easy to break into because others practicing consumer law were so willing to help her. "I didn't have to start from scratch because of my NACA colleagues were willing to share their expertise. I came away from the NACA and NCLC conferences feeling like I wasn't alone. Others were willing to help with both marketing and substantive advice on practicing consumer law."

Attorney John Bowman, who is also African-American and legislative director for NACA, has sought to increase the number of minority attorneys practicing consumer law. "There is a lack of attorneys of color practicing consumer law, but we are reaching out to include more." He acknowledges that it is sometimes difficult to convince attorneys from top tier firms that it is financially viable and good business sense to switch to practicing consumer law, "Historically it has been easier for those who practiced in legal aid to start up a consumer law practice." He would like to see more consumer law courses included in law school and inclusion of consumer law on bar admittance exams. According to Attorney Bowman, Texas is the only state that includes consumer law as part of the bar exam.

At its annual consumer rights litigation conference NCLC holds a breakfast for minority attorneys. "This is an opportunity for minority attorneys engaged in the practice of consumer law to network, discuss cases they are working on, and develop a sense of community. We are encouraged to see the number of minority attorneys is expanding and we welcome more attorneys of color to join us," said Attorney Odette Williamson, an African-American staff attorney at NCLC who coordinates the breakfast.

Diversity of Opportunities in Consumer Law

Consumer advocacy is diverse and wide ranging. Many opt for practicing as solo practitioners or in small firms. Attorney Wright, a sole practitioner who specializes in credit reporting and fair debt collection cases, came to consumer law after working as a banking examiner for several years. According to Ms. Wright, the practice of consumer law offered her an opportunity she didn't have as a bank examiner. "The practice of consumer law gave me the opportunity to help more consumers and to help them directly as a sole practitioner, rather than indirectly helping consumers as a Bank Examiner. Being a sole practitioner allows me to fully utilize my FDIC experience, MBA and JD." Attorney Chavez, who is also a founding member of NACA, has litigated consumer cases as a private attorney general under California's unfair business practices statute. Mr. Chavez notes that he had initial success and this made it easier for him to expand his consumer practice because he developed an expertise in certain types of consumer cases. Attorney Smith-Valentine had a similar experience when she started her consumer law practice. Once word spread that she did consumer cases, she began receiving referrals from colleagues.

Many other minority attorneys have found opportunities in consumer law by working at state and federal consumer protection agencies, state attorneys general offices, and in national, state and local non-profit organizations. Olivia Bae Wein, a Korean-American staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, began her career as an Esther Petersen fellow at Consumers Union in Washington, DC, where she specialized in telecommunication issues. Ms. Wein later joined the NCLC's Washington, DC office and specializes in energy, utility and water issues, with emphasis on public policy rather than litigation. "It is important for there to be diverse representation in shaping utility and energy public policy because of the potential for adverse effects on access to affordable utility services for communities of color." Attorney Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center works on refund anticipation loan and credit scoring issues. Attorney Wu also worked on legislation governing remittances by immigrants send funds to their native countries. Attorney Bowman from NACA also focuses on legislative advocacy, working on arbitration, tort reform, class action and fair debt collection issues that arise in state and federal legislatures.

Diversity of Legal Issues

There is a tremendous breadth to the practice of consumer law. There are dozens of state and federal laws, each addressing consumer credit, automobile sales, and general deceptive sales and marketing practices. The range of issues addressed by consumer law includes predatory lending, credit discrimination, immigration fraud, unfair debt collection practices, credit reporting problems, unfair and deceptive credit card practices, and many more financial practices that adversely affect consumers, many of whom are consumers of color. The solutions these laws provide for consumers can range from a simple letter requesting a debt collector to cease harassing calls to complex class actions, challenging the lending practices of large financial institutions.

Because there is such a broad spectrum of issues within consumer law, many in private practice specialize on one or a few types of consumer cases, at least initially. One key to providing effective representation is to develop an understanding of the best and worst practices of businesses your clients are complaining about. Some of the areas consumer attorneys have been successful in are automobile fraud, fair debt collection practices, credit reporting claims, consumer bankruptcy, home improvement scams, manufactured home and mobile home problems, credit charges, telephone and utility services problems, timeshare and resort memberships, and nursing homes and assistive living communities. Depending on the legal claims, many consumer law attorneys successfully obtain redress for their clients and are paid with attorney's fees under fee shifting provisions contained in many state and federal consumer protection laws.

Obstacles to Consumer Practice

Like other legal practice specialties, there are many obstacles that can make it difficult to develop a successful consumer law practice. Some are basic financial issues. According to attorney Wright, "It may take a while to develop cash flow, especially if you rely on contingency fees." Attorney Smith-Valentine found that developing a client base was one of her most significant obstacles, but once she developed a reputation as an attorney specializing in consumer law, she began to receive referrals. Attorney Smith-Valentine also sees cash flow as a significant obstacle. Attorney Chavez sees other more ominous obstacles, including pro-business and anti-consumer legislatures that seem bent on cutting back the rights of consumers. He points to tort reform and class action reform as prime examples of such efforts. He also points to the common business practice of inserting arbitration clauses into just about every consumer contract. According to Attorney Chavez, "these clauses provide industry with immunity for wrongdoing." Notwithstanding such impediments, Attorney Chavez still sees many opportunities that arise from the lack of regulation. According to Attorney Chavez, consumers are in greater need of protection because of deregulation, especially minority consumers, whom he sees as disproportionately victimized by illegal business practices.

Rewards of Practicing Consumer Law

The success of the practice of consumer law is told by the career satisfaction found among attorneys practicing consumer law. Surveys of lawyers in traditional law firms have shown there is a large group who are unhappy with their work representing large and wealthy clients. In contrast, many consumer lawyers willingly talk about their satisfaction with successfully representing ordinary consumers against large corporations. While some consumer clients may not always be enjoyable to work with, and not all cases are successful, most consumer lawyers find their practice to be meaningful and a career in which they find personal fulfillment. Attorney Wright described her satisfaction this way, "It's an opportunity to give something back to my community. I enjoy this part of the practice." Attorney Wu says working in consumer law gives her an opportunity to "assist consumers who are subjected to deceptive and fraudulent business practices, especially consumers of color." For others, the practice of consumer law provides them with the ability to demonstrate that the justice system can work for minority consumers. "I enjoy helping people of color recognize that they have rights and a voice. So often they don't realize the system can work for them," said attorney Smith-Valentine.

For more information on the practice of consumer law feel free to contact the author of this article at arodriguez@nclcdc.org or go to the NACA and NCLC websites at www.naca.net or www.consumerlaw.org.

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