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E-mail Bankruptcy

posted by Bob Lawless

Internet_tubes_3 The Credit Slips set is never going to be accused of being overly technologically savvy or, for that matter, on top of the latest electronic trends. For example, we have previously expressed our astonishment when we fired up this web site, and the Internet tubes directed us to the right place. Our good friend, Buce, recently caught us up to 2004 when he introduced us to the idea of "e-mail bankruptcy." The dictionary definition of "e-mail bankruptcy" according to the Double-Tounged Word-Wrester Dictionary -- who knew? -- is:

n. choosing to delete, archive, or ignore a very large number of email messages without ever reading them, replying to each with a unique response, or otherwise acting individually on them.

The term is attributed to a Wired magazine column about Stanford cyberlaw guru Larry Lessig's decision to admit he would never possibly get through all of the e-mails that had accumulated in his inbox. Hence, Professor Lessig sent an e-mail to everyone, acknowledging his delinquency in responding, admitting he never would be able to respond, and apologizing for having failed to do so.

This concept raises all sorts of possible avenues of study. Does e-mail bankruptcy have an e-mail automatic stay? Are there e-mail exceptions to discharge? I will be happy to work on these questions for any paying client if e-mail bankruptcy includes e-mail administrative priority for attorneys' fees.

Actually, I find it interesting that Lessig used the term "bankruptcy" to describe his decision not to answer e-mails for which he would not possibly ever have time. Implicit in his use of the term was the notion that bankruptcy is about public acknowledgment of a failure to meet one's obligations. Interestingly, when one talks to people who have filed real-life bankruptcy, you hear stories about the bankruptcy filing being the "responsible" thing to do and tying the notion of responsibility to the public acknowledgment of failure. (I am indebted to fellow Credit Slips co-blogger Katie Porter for this point.) The reality is far different from the rhetoric of credit industry lobbyists and politicians who portray bankruptcy as an irresponsible and easy way out of one's obligations.


As a bankruptcy lawyer, I'm called on to help clients struggling with the decision to file bankruptcy. Frequently, they have succeeded in meeting the minimum payments on their debt, at the expense of health insurance, emergency savings, or retirement assets. They are living on a financial knife's edge.

I suggest they look around themselves at the people for whom they are responsible: their children, their spouse, perhaps aged parents.

The "responsible" decision may be to forgo obligations to commercial creditors on debts that can never really be repaid in favor of taking care of those dependent on you.

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.