Taking on Student Loans

Joshua Cohen became the Student Loan Lawyer in 2008 when he opened his own consumer law firm. In 2011 he launched the Student Loan Law Workshop, teaching consumer attorneys how to incorporate student loan law into their practices. Josh has sued the student loan industry in individual and class action suits, including debt collectors, servicers, and guarantee agencies. Most of his work is educating borrowers about their choices, helping them implement their plan, and sending them on their way with their loan payments back on track.

Josh holds a BA from Brandies University, an MBA and a JD from Quinnipiac University School of Law. He lives in West Dover, VT with his wife, three children, dog, cats, bird, and fish. If he doesn’t answer his phone, he’s either in court or on the ski slopes.

Nicholas Gaffney (NG): What inspired you to specialize in helping people deal their student loan debt?

Joshua Cohen (JC): Believe it or not, I don’t think it was inspiration as much as it was being the right person at the right place at the right time. It started during my 2L summer while working at Connecticut Legal Services in Waterbury. An elderly gentleman came into the office because part of his Social Security was being taken to pay back an old federal student loan for a truck driving school he had attended 20 years prior. Dealing with his issue felt like second nature to me, because I had worked in financial aid as an undergraduate. I knew what had to be done and didn’t think twice about it. My supervisor lets me run with it because he really didn’t know the answer like I did. By the end of the summer, he was out of default, the Social Security offset ceased, and he was making voluntary payments of $5 based on the payment plans available at that time.

After graduating law school and passing the bar, I knew I was going to focus on consumer law. I had already spent my 3L year working at a consumer law firm, focusing on FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) violations. I started my own firm doing FDCPA and debt collection defense but also reflected on my student loan experience as student loan issues were beginning to dominate the news. I needed brushing up, but I wasn’t afraid to tackle the subject. It was odd when talking to other consumer attorneys about student loan law as they didn’t really understand it. But just nine months after opening my firm, I had a major class action based on student loans. Suddenly I and others who worked with me knew there was something here.

It’s gratifying to know I’m helping people deal with a real issue. Understand, I don’t get people out of their debts, except in rare cases where it’s warranted. I get them back on track.

NG: What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently?

JC: I started teaching student loan law to other consumer attorneys in 2011. I revised my workshop a few years ago, but after watching the demand, I’m working on a complete overhaul. The idea is to get more consumer attorneys working on student loan issues, rather than trying to monopolize the field. There are 40 million borrowers with plenty of work to share.

I’m also working on an automated system for DIY folks for more simple student loan issues. The software will help borrowers diagnose their issue, and if simple (as I believe 85% of the issues I see), it will help the borrower decide their option and complete the paperwork. Most borrowers don’t need a lawyer for their issue. What they need is an explanation in plain English, so they can do what needs to be done and move on. That’s what this system is meant to do.

NG: What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?

JC: I think attorneys need to re-evaluate how they see student loans. They need to understand key differences between federal and private loans because the laws governing each is very different. They need to believe they can make a difference. As I tell my workshop graduates, just telling a prospect, “I think we should talk, there might be something we can do” is better than the majority of attorneys who say, “No” when they hear “student loans.” Giving hope is not a bad thing when it’s real. It’s amazing the things attorneys can do for borrowers once they understand student loan law.

I also think attorneys need to better understand that life happens. I rarely have a deadbeat when it comes to student loan clients. Those who aren’t paying are usually in crisis because life happened. Perspective is in the eye of the beholder. What isn’t a big deal to one person is the end of the world to others. Bring a little bit of empathy and suddenly the answer becomes easier to see. Remember, I don’t often get rid of student loan debt, I simply get the borrower back on track.

NG: What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?

JC: I’m too niched to make a general answer, so I’ll specify it to student loans. In a word, Brunner. Brunner is the test used in most bankruptcy courts to determine if a student loan should be discharged in bankruptcy. This doesn’t need to be tweaked, it needs to be thrown into a shredder. It is outdated, using economics and laws from the ‘80s. Everything about the economy and student loan law has changed, but not Brunner.

NG: What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?

JC: I’ve been a virtual law firm for many years now. The idea of being able to do consultations via phone, send a recording of it as an MP3 file via e-mail, and freeing up time for everyone is great. Having a home office and being able to live in what many would consider a remote part of the US, but still make an impact really helps me help others. Lawyering is stressful, but technology can help alleviate that stress. It also helps clients.

NG: What technologies, business models, and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?

JC: Continual development of virtual platforms for meetings and communications that seamlessly tie into practice management software is helping small firms stay competitive. I’m not much of a techie, but I understand enough to know when I need better technology, and I know when I see something that works for me. Small-scale CRM (Customer Relation Management) software can make a big impact for the smaller firms that often don’t have a budget for large-scale marketing. A small, affordable, customizable CRM makes marketing much more affordable, even if that requires hiring an outsider to help run it.

NG: What’s the best new law practice idea you have heard recently?

JC: I wouldn’t say it’s new, but something that I find many small firms struggles with is social media. I can also say I’m one of the afflicted. While my firm has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and the other common social media channels, I’ve never been very good at keeping up with them or my blog. Sure, I have a lot to say, and people love to hear it (I know this from the responses I’ve received back in the day when I was blogging), it’s just not me. That’s the key thing right there. Lawyers are still people (despite what non-lawyers might think). Lawyers still have to be themselves when doing social media outreach. That’s why I’ve committed to starting a podcast in the very near future (or perhaps its already started by the time this is published). It feels so much more natural to me to speak about an issue than write about it. So many lawyers attempt to blog or do other social media, but they feel or appear awkward because it isn’t really them. Find something that fits your style, and it’ll show through. Isn’t that part of the social media outreach purpose; to show prospects who you are?

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is the founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco, CA and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at ngaffney@zumado.com or on Twitter @nickgaffney.

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