Will Kohn ’76 Created Assistance Programs in Illinois, Ohio
Days before his sudden and unexpected passing, Will Kohn ’76 was interviewed for the article below. His sincere concern for the law school, our students, and the role of lawyers in society, coupled with his energy and creativity in translating that concern to real world applications was very special and, frankly, inspiring. All of us at the College were so fond of Will and so appreciative of his support, we decided that publishing this feature was one of the ways we could pay tribute to our special friend. — Alan C. Michaels, Dean
What makes William I. Kohn ’76 admirable is not his ideas of how to help others, but how he personally ensures those ideas come to fruition.
When he realized the effects of the 2005 amendments to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, he could have ignored them. When he saw how the new rules were adversely affecting low income citizens, he could have simply looked the other way since he does not represent individual clients in his commercial-oriented practice.
Instead, Kohn found a way to help. The bankruptcy bypass programs he created in Illinois and Ohio have helped hundreds of low-income residents. Although Kohn has been recognized for his good work, he said awards are not comparable to the satisfaction that comes from helping people.
“It is such a rewarding program,” he said. “The best award you can receive is shaking clients’ hands at the end of interviews and to see their relief when the collection calls stop. These people do feel guilty, but the laws are set up to protect them so they don’t have to miss meals. That won’t appear on my biography, but it is really the ultimate reward.”
Kohn, who was practicing in Chicago when the amendments were implemented, said that a growing number of people were approaching legal aid societies for help filing bankruptcies. “They were inundating agencies,” he said. “That got me to thinking: ‘could we get them the help they needed by bypassing the bankruptcy process?’”
Kohn determined that most of the people who were asking for assistance were exempt from facing bankruptcy proceedings because of their income level and lack of assets. He approached the Center for Disability and Elder Law in Chicago with his idea for a Bankruptcy Bypass Project. The program quickly became a success.
Kohn’s idea allowed volunteer attorneys to review applicants’ assets and income to determine whether clients were “judgment proof.” If so, these clients – who, Kohn said, were oftentimes elderly or disabled – were protected by the law from collection.
The pro bono attorneys then help draft letters to be sent to the applicants’ creditors stating that it is the center’s determination that these individuals are judgment proof, and creditors do not have the ability to collect the debt.
“Usually as a result of this the collection efforts stop,” he said.
Kohn left his Chicago firm in 2006 and joined the Benesch firm in Cleveland. Shortly after arriving in Cleveland, Kohn began pursuing the creation of a program similar to his Chicago one. He partnered with the Cleveland Legal Aid Society, which began assisting clients in bypassing bankruptcy in 2009. Last year, about 150 Cleveland area residents were helped by the program, Kohn said.
Kohn’s bankruptcy bypass work has won recognition from the bench and bar. He was presented the Excellence in Public Interest Service Award by the Northern District of Illinois District Court and the Federal Bar Association in 2006 for creating and starting the program in Chicago.
In addition to his pro bono efforts, Kohn has been a leader in his firm and in the closely knit bankruptcy bar. After joining Benesch, Kohn was charged with opening the firm’s Delaware office. He travels there twice a month to oversee the operations of the growing office.
He has also become a leader in the bankruptcy practice, now with more than 30 years of experience. He chairs Benesch’s Business Reorganization Practice Group. He is the current president of the American Board of Certification, the only ABA and state bar recognized authority for certifying attorneys in business and consumer bankruptcy practice nationally. He also is a former adjunct professor of bankruptcy and banking law at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
“I like the fact that there are time pressures in bankruptcy,” he said. “The bar is relatively small and you do tend to know people who represent the banks and other attorneys in the practice.”
Kohn credits some of his success to The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. He’s shown his appreciation by endowing a scholarship at Moritz, the Dean John “Jack” Henderson Scholarship (awarded annually at the discretion of the dean), and is in the process of endowing a second one, The James H. Williams Scholarship Fund.
“I really feel indebted to Moritz,” he said. “I don’t think I’m being generous, I’m just paying back. I got a first-class education at a relatively modest expense. Other people were helping to pay for my tuition – other alumni and the state of Ohio. I always felt that a percentage of my success was clearly owed to the school for having trained me to practice as a lawyer.”