Owe You DON'T!

The shoestring law firm of Bybee andShaw makes money by hounding debt collectors who make mistakes

There is no receptionist to greet a visitor venturing into the Law Offices of Bybee and Shaw.

In fact, the law office lacks virtually all of the staff and amenities one would expect to find. There is no secretary, no paralegal, no copy machine, no art on the walls, no library of leather-bound statute books, no Wall Street Journal and dish of hard candy on a rosewood credenza, no elegant conference room with a 20th-floor view of Camelback Mountain.

Attorneys Floyd Bybee and Michael Shaw man the front desk and answer the phone themselves.

Most of the furniture in the three-room office--including a laminated table in the "conference room"--came from Terri's Consignment World. The conference room itself looks out on the parking lot of a strip center on South Rural Road.

The office computer, a reasonably modern IBM, sits on the desk in the reception area where Bybee churns out legal pleadings for both lawyers. Shaw can't type or manage a computer.

Shaw, 36, who once made a living as a "hot walker," someone who cools down racehorses, has been practicing law for five years. Bybee, a 37-year-old former auto mechanic, has been in the business one year longer than Shaw.

Beyond their ages and law experience, the two seem to be opposites in practically every way. Shaw likes to talk. Bybee doesn't much like to converse about anything.

Shaw is a streetwise New Jerseyite who wears a diamond post earring and has acquired a fondness for Harley-Davidson cigarettes and caffeine-laced sodas. Tall, rumpled, unremarkable in appearance, Bybee has the beginnings of middle-age spread; a Mormon, he doesn't drink or smoke.

The attorneys do not socialize much after work.
They aren't rich lawyers, by any means. Bybee himself has just gone through a personal bankruptcy. Each will be pleased if he earns the underwhelming sum of $30,000 this year, a salary the American Bar Association in Chicago asserts is somewhat "low end" for lawyers.

The clientele of Bybee and Shaw is not rich, either. Clients are mostly poor or lower-middle-class people who--because of divorce or illness, job loss or disorganized living--have gotten themselves into financial trouble. Some have filed for bankruptcy. Others have bounced checks. Still others owe money to hospitals, banks, furniture stores, you name it.

Most clients have been in arrears for a long, long time; so long that their debts and bad checks have been turned over to bill collectors.

If the clients are lucky, Bybee and Shaw will examine correspondence and find a technical violation of either state or federal law. A 1978 federal law, called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, receives the most emphasis.

If a violation is found--not sending a letter by certified mail, for instance--Bybee and Shaw are accommodating. They offer to "settle" with the debt collectors, who are often attorneys themselves. Those settlements can include the debtor's attorney's fees, forgiveness of the debt and associated fees, and a payment for "damages."

If no settlement is forthcoming, Bybee and Shaw sue the debt-collecting attorneys in federal court.

In Maricopa County, Bybee and Shaw appear to be the only lawyers who devote most of their practice to hounding debt collectors.

The Maricopa County Bar says it continues to refer most callers with gripes about collection practices to Bybee and Shaw, who are, after all, lawyers in good standing with the State Bar of Arizona.

The referrals create an ironic situation, because many of the debt collectors targeted by Bybee and Shaw are themselves attorneys. And those lawyers, who think they are trying to collect legitimate debts for merchants, can wind up owing money.

"Collection attorneys think we're lower than spit," says Shaw.
This seems to be true.

Collection attorneys who have faced off against Bybee and Shaw voice exactly the same complaints that the general public often makes against lawyers. Collection attorneys say Bybee and Shaw are more interested in fees than clients, that they twist everything out of proportion by making a very big deal out of minor, technical violations of the federal debt-collecting law.

Dale States is a Phoenix attorney who says he recently paid $2,000 to Bybee and Shaw. The settlement ended a lawsuit Shaw filed on behalf of Laura Ramirez, who owed $120 to a doctor. States had been trying to collect that debt for the doctor.

The Ramirez lawsuit alleged States violated the federal debt-collecting law by writing a letter to Ramirez that, among other things, threatened a lawsuit when none was intended. This empty threat violated the federal law, the suit says.

States first denied the allegations, then admitted liability and paid Bybee and Shaw $2,000, plus another $1,000 to his own lawyer. Laura Ramirez's debt was forgiven.

Shaw and Ramirez split the $2,000 settlement.
States doesn't seem thrilled with the outcome of his encounter with Shaw.
Everyone seems to agree that the 17year-old federal debt-collecting law was needed to protect debtors from the frequently predatory tactics of unscrupulous bill collectors. These days, very few debt collectors engage in that sort of behavior, collections lawyers say.

And States says the well-intentioned federal law is "very vague and very broad," and technical violations are "very easy to find."

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