A company files for bankruptcy. Millions of dollars are lost by unsecured creditors. There is no cash to pay lawyers to go after third parties. What do you do?
It’s simple. Find a competent firm willing to take the case on a contingent or hybrid fee basis.
Take theHeller Ehrman bankruptcy as an example. The 750-member international law firm filed for bankruptcy, in part it says, because its main two lenders -- Bank of America and Citibank -- refused to renegotiate the terms of a $5.7 million debt the banks say the firm owes as part of a long-term loan.
According to a recent court filing, the unsecured creditors' committee has asked the bankruptcy judge to approve the hire of a litigation firm for a pending case against Bank of America and Citibank. Under the proposed contract, the 11-lawyer firm would be paid $1 million up front, plus a contingency fee based on the net benefit to the estate if they win. “It’s BIG, You’re in Charge! Firm Picked for Pending Case Against BofA, Citi,” The Recorder, April 9, 2010.
When such a bankruptcy gets underway, counsel for the debtor should investigate potential claims against third-parties. They should then work with the unsecured creditors’ committee to search for special counsel – typically contingent fee business litigators who frequently represent plaintiffs against powerful companies. Once they negotiate a contract with the law firm that will undertake the case, the contract can be presented to the bankruptcy judge for approval.
Of course, the firm chosen for the task must possess entrepreneurial spirit and courage, as big third-party defendants such as B of A and Citi will have excellent counsel who are highly motivated by their substantial hourly fees. But such is the case in major, contingent fee business litigation.
In the end, it should be a win-win for everyone. Enough money may be generated to pay back all or part of what is due the unsecured creditors. Counsel for the debtor and the creditors will be heroes. The Court will be happy. The contingency fee lawyers, who get paid if they win, will be happy. The only unhappy people will be the third-party defendants who pay.
If the right lawyer agrees to take the case, it’s a no-brainer for the debtor and creditors!