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Practitioner Profile: Sabrina Neff

Susan Manship Seaman

Practitioner Profile: Sabrina Neff
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

Sabrina is interviewed by Susan M. Seaman, a partner in Husch Blackwell, LLP’s banking and consumer financial services group.

A huge consideration when I moved law firms last year was my potential colleagues. Being able to practice with Sabrina Neff, a partner at Husch Blackwell, LLP, was a major benefit of joining the firm.

I have admired Sabrina for many years at ABA meetings. She is always polished, always personable, and always knowledgeable. When she shares consumer financial services litigation insights, you can tell the time she has invested to master her practice.

Sabrina has also been a model for getting involved in professional legal organizations. Her willingness to serve in leadership roles and help others navigate organizations has benefited many in our profession, including me. I had the opportunity to sit down with Sabrina to ask her some questions about her career and practice.

Q: How did you begin your career and how did you find your way to consumer financial services law?

My career began in 2008, during the onset of the Great Recession. The civil rights law firm where I clerked during law school and who had hired me to start after the bar exam actually folded up shop during the bar exam. Devastated but determined, I reached out to every lawyer I knew. My moot court coach hired me into his small litigation practice, where he focused on real property litigation. He invested untold hours in developing my litigation skills and gave me opportunities to be in court—including trial—from the very start. A firm acting as co-counsel for one of those early trials later hired me.

At the new firm, I substituted in for an associate with a scheduling conflict in an auto finance case, which is how I met Larry Young. It cannot be overstated how much Larry believes in the value of investing in people—getting to know them, training them, championing them. Larry took me under his wing and showed me that consumer financial services law is indeed the most exciting area of legal practice and is especially befitting for anyone who enjoys the challenge of advising on constantly evolving law. Along with Larry, I began working with Paul Kellogg who became the compliance yin to my litigation yang. Through Paul, I learned how to utilize the expertise of compliance attorneys to improve my litigation advice.

Q: How has the landscape for financial services litigation changed over time?

I’ve been practicing for fewer than 14 years but, in this time, I have witnessed an important shift in litigation. Individual consumer finance litigation has transformed from a more piecemeal practice into a cottage industry, often now prosecuted by litigation mills. More frequently than ever, we receive a letter prior to litigation or arbitration with a monetary demand from consumer counsel. But, when we scratch the surface of the allegations, it is clear that counsel has conducted no more than an introductory interview with the consumer (if that). There has been little to no effort to corroborate the allegations, even with the consumer’s own readily available records.  While counsel isn’t really clear on any of the facts, they are clear that a stated sum of money will “make all of this go away”—whatever this is. My retired partner Jon Ledsky refers to this as the Entrepreneurial System of Justice. It invades areas of litigation where the cost to investigate and defend are perceived to be greater than the cost to settle. This practice has been commonplace in the tort space for more than 30 years (think Fen-Phen, breast implants, and mesothelioma). But, with tort reform, this model has found a new home, crystallizing in consumer litigation. 

Q: How do you recommend that young lawyers learn the basic legal issues in consumer financial protection?

There are a number of ways to learn the basics, and I recommend that young lawyers employ as many of these options as their firms will support. First, there is no substitute for participating in a survey course geared toward newer consumer finance counsel, such as the National Institute. It is a great way to learn the fundamentals, to decipher which agencies regulate which industry players and in what ways, and to network with both other young lawyers and with established experts who are committed to developing young lawyers. Second, participate in as many client interviews as possible. There, your senior attorneys are explaining the law, often to laypersons who are on the business side rather than in-house counsel. For litigators in particular, you will learn how we extract information to determine whether a party can state claim, what defenses are available, what evidence might be used in summary judgment or at trial, and what courses we need to chart in discovery to get us to our destination. Third, jump in the deep end. We learn by doing. Volunteer to research the memo. Offer to outline the summary judgment motion. 

Q: Which aspects of your current practice do you find most exciting?

Credit reporting is the sexiest issue in consumer finance right now.

I work in a variety of subindustries from mortgages to student lending and litigate claims under a number of statutes from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) to the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”). But it doesn’t really count as a workday if I haven’t opened the Credit Reporting Resource Guide (“CRRG”). The interplay of the CRRG and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) enthralls me. Is compliance with the CRRG also compliance with the FCRA? And vice-versa? Does the FCRA require more than CRRG? Can a furnisher use the CRRG as both a sword and a shield?

But even more, I am intrigued by the very existence of the CRRG and the efforts to improve upon it. One of the lingering challenges to capitalism is whether private industry can effectively self-regulate to avoid harming individuals. The CRRG is the tangible product of an entire industry taking stock and deciding together that we can be better than we have been, we can weed out those who refuse to play by the rules, and in doing so we will create an end product that will be both valuable and helpful. If you ever want to talk through a METRO 2 question, please call me. It will make my day!

Q: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

The practice of law is long but the legal community is finite, even in Houston—the third largest legal community in the country. Forgive and be gracious whenever possible. 

We have truly limited visibility into the hardships of our colleagues, especially opposing counsel.  Chances are good that your paths will cross again. You never know how much professional courtesy in a time of struggle begets goodwill down the road. 

Q: Tell us something most people do not know about you.

My paralegal says I should tell you that I’m a hockey lover from Texas, a rare breed for sure. She also wants you to know that I was crowned the 2020 Office Trivia Queen after winning a several-week trivia contest about my colleagues during Stay-at-Home orders. I suspect that my social butterfly status isn’t that well-kept of a secret. But the fact that I’m also a mechanically inclined comic book enthusiast might be.

This article was prepared by the Business Law Section's Consumer Financial Services Committee.