The Covid/19 pandemic has changed how we work forever, and bankruptcy practice is no exception.
Just two years ago this is what we did:
- We met most new clients in person during office meetings.
- Most cases were signed in person.
- An 80-page bankruptcy petition was signed with ink signatures on paper.
- Debtors attended a Section 341 Meeting of Creditors at the courthouse.
- Agreements to reaffirm home and car loans were signed on paper and mailed to creditors.
All that changed in March 2020 when the pandemic forced courts to close down. Since that time we have signed all cases electronically and meetings with the bankruptcy trustee (required under Section 341 of the Bankruptcy Code) have been conducted over the telephone.
Although many questioned whether telephone 341 meetings would be effective since the trustees cannot see the person testifying under oath, the general feeling is that little has been lost in the process. Trustees seem to be as effective conducting telephonic exams as they are with live in-person examinations.
Some trustees have even said that telephonic meetings are actually better since fewer debtors miss the hearings due to work or family conflicts. They can call in during work hours and can attend even if they are sick.
I think some trustees are as delighted to avoid dressing up for hearings that stretch out all day in federal courthouses as are debtor’s counsel who frequently work from home.
The big news received this week is that the United States Trustee’s Office will be implementing a new nationwide Zoom 341 hearing system to be unveiled in the next year.
Wow, this is really a big deal. It means that in-person 341 hearings are permanently a thing of the past. It also means the US Trustee’s office has carefully evaluated the effectiveness of remote hearings and have found them to be successful.
Zoom 341 hearings will offer several advantages over voice conference calls:
- Facial Expressions: Trustees will be able to see the debtor’s testify and read their facial expressions.
- Shared Screens: Trustees will be able to share their computer screen with the debtor to bring attention to specific lines of the bankruptcy petition, tax returns, bank statements or other documents. That rarely occurred during in-person hearings.
- Waiting Rooms: Zoom technology allows meeting participants to be keep in an electronic waiting room until their meeting is up.
- Meeting Queues: Zoom may allow participants to know how many cases will be called before their turn.
- Muting Feature. Whether meetings take place in person or on conference calls, trustees are frequently annoyed by folks who talk during other people’s hearing. Zoom technology may empower the trustees to mute all voices not involved with the case.
The obvious problem with Zoom meetings will be that some debtors will struggle with the technology. Not everyone uses a smartphone or computer. So there will probably need to be rules that allow low-tech debtors to call in on the phone. Perhaps attorneys may need to file motions to allow such calls for those debtors.
No doubt, Zoom 341 hearings will create new complications and technology frustrations, but overall the move to Zoom hearings is a great advancement.
Debtors will not need to take a day off work to attend routing meetings that generally last no more than a few minutes. Debtor attorneys may continue to evolve their remote office practices. Shared screens may actually cause the trustees to ask more penetrating questions by showing debtors documents that contradict their testimony.
The downside of Zoom 341 meetings? Yep, everyone needs to start dressing up again.
Image courtesy of Flickr and Radiofabrik-Community