Games Over

Bankruptcy lawyer Laura Day DelCotto isn’t playing around when it comes to protecting her clients

Published in 2016 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2016

Q: Do bankruptcy clients tend to come to you when there’s still time to help, or when it’s time to be dug out of the ditch?

A: More the latter. [Laughs] I wish there were more in the former. We will occasionally find someone who comes in to say, “I see this coming out on the horizon. Are there any tweaks I can make now to avoid this?” But the vast majority come in when there is already a major problem. Not that you can’t help them, but sometimes they’ve done things that [make] you wish you could have gotten to them sooner.

We do all debtor work. It’s just more rewarding to me to be helping the business owner try to save their business. But I have the background of both sides, so that’s always helpful, because I know how the banks think.

 

Q: What is a typical situation that a client might bring to you?

A: They’re entrepreneurs. They have built a business. They have been in it for a long time. They’ve been successful. Maybe it grew too fast. Maybe they’ve got one creditor who won’t renew their loan, one bank. They’re complex. A lot of it is just sort of putting these puzzles together of all these different players, trying to get it all to fit together.

 

Q: Are your clients usually impressed by what you’re able to do for them?

A: Yes. I have clients who love me. It doesn’t always work out, but I guess what I like to pride myself on is trying to educate them and guide them through the issues, because when you’re dealing with angry creditors, you can’t control what they’re going to do. So a lot of what I feel like I do is people skills, and trying to make clients understand that, no matter what we try to do, [the creditor] may still just not be agreeable to anything. But nine times out of 10, we get a plan confirmed, or we sell a company as a going concern. We generally get things resolved.

 

Q: What size businesses do you work with?

A: Probably anything from $5 million in assets and liabilities up to $100 million or north.

 

Q: Lawyering runs in your family, right?

A: My grandfather and my father were both lawyers in Glasgow, so I have memories from early childhood of playing in their office. They had a firm: Richardson, Barrickman & Dickinson. In high school, I was the receptionist in the office and answered the phones. I didn’t really think I wanted to be a lawyer necessarily. And then I went to college at 20 and I majored in natural resources, which was geology and forestry, which was a little bit outside the box for me.

 

Q: Why geology and forestry?

A: I was good in English and history and the liberal arts, so going into geology was not anything that was planned. I just wanted a challenge.

 

Q: At what point did you decide to go for law?

A: Like a lot of people, I got out of college and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had worked in Washington, D.C., a couple of times in college on the Hill and I loved that environment. I worked for Dee Huddleston, who was one of the senators from Kentucky, for a summer. And then I graduated college a semester early and worked for basically a semester for Bill Natcher, who was a senior congressman from Kentucky. So that was my initial plan: to go to law school, try to get in somewhere in Washington, D.C., with the EPA, become an environmental lawyer. Because that had been my college major, environmental issues. But that didn’t happen.

 

Q: Why not?

A: I [got] sidetracked. I ended up working in South Carolina for a Chapter 13 trustee’s office, which is in bankruptcy. My father was a bankruptcy trustee and became a bankruptcy judge. I had never paid that much attention as a child. So I worked for this trustee’s office. Then, after my second year, I clerked here in Lexington for Stoll Keenon, and I ended up working quite a bit with the bankruptcy partner.

By then, I was married and just stayed in Lexington. I went off into the bankruptcy world, and that’s where I still am 30 years later. It’s just been a great fit for me. I really like helping people who are in financial difficulties. Some of the big cases are very challenging; you become somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades because you learn about different industries. I’m always learning something.

 

Q: I guess it’s not surprising that someone who majored in geology because it was something new would enjoy a challenge.

A: Sometimes I wish I weren’t like that so much. I always want to tweak the process. I never want to say, “Well, this is how we did it before, so this is how we’re going to do it.”

 

Q: Can you tell me about a memorable case?

A: The ones that stand out in my mind are the difficult situations with a whole lot of different people. Wallace Wilkinson was one of our former governors. He went through a big bankruptcy personally, and there were some fraud allegations.

 

Q: So you were representing one of his creditors?

A: Yes. We ended up getting people in a room and having this long, drawn-out global settlement. There’s only a limited pot of money, so the more the lawyers litigate and fight, the more the lawyers are taking all the money and the creditors are not getting money. So, at least the way I was brought up, you always pick up the phone. You always try to work something out. And if you can’t work something out, you’re going to go to court, but you’re going to narrow the issues as much as you can. That’s why it’s actually been a good fit for me, because I like doing that.

 

Q: You like the interpersonal connections.

A: Now there is so much communication by email and there’s almost an unwillingness to pick up the phone and just talk to people. And even less just getting together to meet. I am a believer that that’s how you really get things done. Email’s great to set up meetings and to share some basic information, but to actually try to negotiate or solve problems over email doesn’t work. I think that’s contributed to the decrease in civility, because people will just send snarky emails back and forth.

 

Q: Was it tough being a woman in bankruptcy law back in the mid-’80s?

A: That was back when we were wearing our little bowtie blouses and pantyhose and all that. There was still a little sexism, I guess, but probably not as bad as it had been in the past.

 

Q: How about now? Do you feel as respected as your male counterparts?

A: I think I get the same amount of respect. I think if you underestimate me because I’m gracious or friendly or have female characteristics, you would quickly find out that you weren’t going to take advantage of me. I have confidence and I’m not going to take any crap.

 

Q: How do you think women in general are faring in the legal industry?

A: I’m very passionate about getting more women into the senior levels of law, because we’re not adequately represented. In our jurisdiction we have a lot of female bankruptcy attorneys, but I’ve often been the only girl in the room. I get to watch men have their little ego contests periodically, and now I just get amused by watching it. So it’s an issue.

I hope I can be encouraging to other women. We’re very smart. We’re very capable. And I hope the profession can have more women role models. It is an issue of females just dropping out of the profession. We really need more women.

 

Q: What do you think would change that?

A: I think the profession has to value what women bring to the table. When you’re in a male-dominated industry of any kind, they value the male attributes more. You have to feel valued and you have to feel like you’re making a difference and you have to be engaged.

 

Q: Do you think firms need to step up, or do women just need to be more insistent?

A: It’s on both. I’ve seen women attorneys who were so meek and timid that they were never going to earn the trust of their male clients because they wouldn’t stand up to them and engage with them. I do believe women need likeability, but it’s such a fine line. It’s every day, every situation, you’re just having to figure out the right way to be all the time.

 

Q: Have you had some good mentors along the way?

A: Yes. Joe Scott was the bankruptcy partner that I worked with at Stoll Keenon. He later became a bankruptcy judge here. A great person. It was just more of an organic, day-to-day-watching-him kind of mentoring, as opposed to any formal mentoring program. But he likes to announce that he taught me everything I know. [Laughs] My father [Henry Dickinson] was a great mentor, too.

Also, Judge Joe Lee was the bankruptcy referee and only judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky bankruptcy court for many years. He was on the bench for over 50 years. As a young lawyer, I practiced in front of him on a regular basis. He had such a quiet dignity and caring manner. It is not really anything he ever said to me but the way he conducted himself. The way he handled his courtroom, the courtesy and respect he showed to debtors who appeared in front of him—who were down on their luck and in a bad way—and the way he gently showed young lawyers, by asking softball questions, never by embarrassing them, that maybe there was something they missed or another few things to ponder. That has been a lifelong influence on me.

 

Q: Is there anything you’d like to change about the legal system in general?

A: It’s still a very money-driven system. There are a lot of people with the golden rule of “He who has the gold rules,” instead of the one I was brought up with. I would like to see it be easier for everybody to have access to quality representation to present their case. Not everyone can afford to do that. You get big companies and big banks with very deep pockets, and when you represent a debtor who is struggling already, it’s a challenge.

A lot of big [players], to me, are arrogant and decide they’re just going to do whatever they’re going to do. I don’t like a lot of games. I just like to cut to the chase and say let’s either try this to work this out, or let’s go have a trial. I’m just not very patient for a lot of gamesmanship.

 

Q: In 2003, you and Tracey N. Wise (now chief bankruptcy judge for Eastern Kentucky) started your own firm. Why did you make that decision?

A: I guess it must be like when I decided to study geology. I just needed to see if I could do it.

 

This interview was edited and condensed.

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