Laws.Com Article On John G. Merna
Virginia Beach, VA—Don’t try to tell John Merna that bankruptcy filers are irresponsible.
“The people we’re seeing are not people who are just unloading $50,000 in debt to turn around and buy another house or car,” Merna explained in a recent interview with Law.com. “These are people who are truly bouncing off the fence of poverty or basically being homeless.”
For Merna, who worked for the CIA for several years and completed a master’s degree in journalism before attending law school, working as a bankruptcy attorney has given him a new perspective on the economic realities of regular Americans. “Baby boomers are now retiring and getting older,” he says. “As I see more people on Social Security filing bankruptcy because the cost of living is out of hand, I’ve just become more empathic.”
As a former president of the Tidewater Bankruptcy Bar Association and an attorney with offices in Virginia Beach, Newport News and Richmond, Merna has become an expert in the ins and outs of bankruptcy practice. Today, he believes that one of the biggest challenges facing bankruptcy attorneys is a lack of new filers. “A lot of people are speculating on why fewer people are filing, but it’s certainly not that the economy is getting better,” he says.
Merna has some ideas as to what may be causing the drop: “To some degree, it could be that because with five years of a bad economy, the people who were going to file have been flushed out of the system. If you look at the historical trends, it shows that the reduction is not going to keep going down—it’s going to level off.”
After 18 years practicing bankruptcy law, Merna says that some changes have been distinctly unhelpful to consumers. “I practiced at a time when student loan debt used to be dischargeable,” he recalls, noting that today’s students can almost never discharge their loan debt. “If we do open up the dischargeability of student loan debt under certain conditions, it will reduce the abuse of lending and easy lending to students. It’ll make the lender look more carefully at the student and whether they are going to have the potential to pay off that debt.”
Unlike other types of legal practices, Merna believes that the practice of bankruptcy law has more to do with client interaction than forms and paperwork. “Bankruptcy law is really about people. It’s not really about the law as much. You have to be pretty emphatic about people’s circumstances and understanding about misfortune. Not everybody in our country is affluent and making a great income,” he says.
While some people believe that bankruptcy allows people to shrug off their debt too easily, Merna disagrees. Instead, he thinks that bankruptcy can actually operate to make sure society runs more efficiently and cost-effectively.
“Bankruptcy laws are a great release valve in our society to prevent these people from going on the social welfare system or becoming wards of the state, which becomes costly,” Merna says. “It’s a way of recuperating and giving people a second chance. It truly is a fresh start, and somebody who’s going to be practicing bankruptcy law really needs to understand the need for that fresh start in our society.”