Robertson ’90: Making bankruptcy her business
Jean Robertson ’90 has been fine-tuning her bankruptcy and restructuring skills since law school, and, albeit an unfortunate time for the economy, the current climate has made her expertise more valuable than ever before.
“We know and expect to be busy, and as lawyers we like keeping busy. The circumstances in the market today are keeping all lawyers in my field very busy and in high demand. It is hard because while the economy is failing, I’m in ‘my element’ because what keeps us busy is hurting our communities,” she said. “There is job security right now, but the circumstances for it are unnerving.”
Robertson’s firm, Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP, represents corporations that supplied materials to many auto manufacturers, including Chrysler Motors and GM, which have joined a growing list of gigantic corporations that have declared bankruptcy in the last year. Robertson said that a great deal of what she does is about keeping up with the nation’s economy.
“You have to remember the context you are working in because it always changes,” she said. “There is no other time in our nation’s economy that companies like Chrysler or GM would have filed for bankruptcy. These are companies that aren’t supposed to fail.”
Robertson did not exactly choose bankruptcy law as her area of practice. “It kind of chose me,” she said.
During her time at the Moritz College of Law she did an externship for Judge Donald Calhoun, the chief bankruptcy judge at the time for the Southern District of Ohio. Although she was admittedly not interested in the bankruptcy course she took in law school, when time came for her to search for a job, her background in the field gave her an edge.
“When I was job hunting in Pittsburgh, I realized that employers took notice of my externship,” she said. “Every firm wants someone with at least a little bankruptcy law experience.”
A partner at Calfee, Halter & Griswold in Cleveland, Robertson is a frequent lecturer and author, sharing her experience and expertise in her area of practice. She speaks often to lawyers to teach them about the intricacies of bankruptcy law and business restructuring. Robertson also speaks to trade organizations and businesses – anyone who encounters creditors’ rights and debtor related issues. She is regularly quoted in some of the nation’s largest newspapers about pending bankruptcies around the country.
“Lawyers that aren’t familiar with bankruptcy law should understand that it is not intuitive; it’s different from most other “code” classes in law school because it often changes the rules we learned in school,” she said.
Considering that bankruptcy and restructuring is something that is involved in various fields, Robertson said it is what keeps her job interesting. “You get to do it all, courtroom litigation and transactional work. It’s why I like it so much. It’s like a big patch work quilt,” she said. “It’s a field that is good for a lawyer who doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up.”
Robertson said that she believes that attitudes toward bankruptcy have changed because of its relevancy to current events. “It used to be the scarlet letter. It was the idea that only deadbeats filed for bankruptcy, but now it’s a way of life and a way to survive the times. It’s part of our culture and almost all conversations at every dinner, cocktail party, soccer game, and blog. People are being engaged in the bankruptcy process.”
Robertson is a co-chair of the Unsecured Trade Creditors’ Committee for the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI). She has been an active member in the ABI for the past 10 years and is also an editor for the healthcare bankruptcy column in the ABI Journal. Robertson is also co-chair of Healthcare and Nonprofits in Bankruptcy Committee of the Business Section of the American Bar Association. She decided to get involved with healthcare bankruptcy after she was involved in a billion dollar nonprofit healthcare case in 1998. “I learned a lot from that experience and, because of its size, it helped me earn a national reputation,” she said.
She is also an active member of the International Women’s Insolvency & Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC). IWIRC is an organization that was created by three women 13 years ago in New York City to bring opportunities for women focused on insolvency. She was a charter member of the Pittsburgh chapter of IWIRC and founded the Northeast Ohio chapter in 2000.