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Google, Bankruptcy & Bieber

posted by Bob Lawless

One of the many wonderful things about university teaching is that you get to hang around lots of smart people who tell you lots of interesting things. One of my students, David Henken, pointed out to me a very interesting pattern that comes from Google Insights for Search. People use Google to search for the word "bankruptcy" much more often during the week than the weekend. Does this pattern tell us something about how people think about bankruptcy? Perhaps.

Compared to the weekly pattern for other search terms, "bankruptcy" seems to have its own rhythm. This includes a search I did for "Justin Bieber," perhaps the most useful Bieber-related search that has ever occurred. And, yes, my invocation of Justin Bieber is largely motivated by a shameless attempt to increase blog readership among girls aged 10-14, especially those living at Casa Lawless.

GoogleWordTrendsUsing Google Insights, I constructed the graphs to the right. Each graph represents the pattern of usage for each of the search terms at the top of each graph. The data go back 90 days and are limited to searches from the United States. The vertical lines represent the weekends, having been placed halfway between the data points for each Saturday and Sunday. Each data series represent an index provided by Google Insights.

"Bankruptcy" has a strong, weekly rhythm. The popularity of the search term during the week is about twice as high as it is during the weekend. The pattern shows much stronger peaks and valleys than other search terms.

The explanation that leapt immediately to my mind is that "bankruptcy" is just one of those words that gets used more often at work. For example, a journalist writing a story on a company in chapter 11 or an accountant looking for the GAAP rules for insolvent companies is simply much more likely to search on the word "bankruptcy" during the work week rather than the weekend. Hence, the pattern is not especially surprising. My student, David Henken, pointed out to me that persons who search just for the word "bankruptcy" probably are persons looking just for general knowledge and are less likely to be persons with a professional connection to bankruptcy. That is a good point. Also, a similar pattern exists for "bankruptcy attorney," which is more likely to be a search by someone thinking about filing for bankruptcy rather than a person doing a search for work-related purposes.

The next thought that occurred to me -- yeah, I know, two thoughts in one day! -- is that perhaps most Internet searches would have the heaviest usage during the week. Now it is time to release the Bieber. His search trends show exactly the opposite patterns, with more popularity on the weekend. Searches for "banana" and "baseball" also were more popular on the weekend, although the data on the latter term got fairly noisy with the start of the Major League Baseball playoffs. Even for words like "automobile", where the term is more popular during the work week, the difference between weekend and work week is not nearly as pronounced as it is for searches on "bankruptcy."

Undoubtedly, part of what is happening is that people who search for "bankruptcy" or "bankruptcy attorney" want to contact a lawyer, and lawyer's offices tend to be open only Monday to Friday. The search is contemporaneous with the call to the lawyer's office. Even that dynamic would be some new information because it would tend to suggest that people move quickly from gathering information--or at least from using Google to gather information--about bankruptcy to sitting down with a bankruptcy attorney. Previous work, including my own, suggests that people suffer through financial distress for a long time before filing bankruptcy. Maybe once a debtor decides to look at his or her bankruptcy alternatives, the personal decision-making process begins to move quickly toward a bankruptcy filing.

I also would hypothesize that something deeper is at work. The patterns suggest that people might see bankruptcy as belonging to the outside world rather than the home and the family. I would bet the data reflect the fact that many people use Google during the workday for purposes that are not exactly connected to work. Do people Google "bankruptcy" at work because they do not want their family to know? Is there something deeper happening emotionally where people want to leave their financial woes with that part of their person who lives outside their home? Searches on the word "cancer" display a similar but not as strong of a pattern as to that for "bankruptcy," suggesting that perhaps there is something about bad news that people just do want to confront on the weekend. While I was writing this up, my colleague, Rob Kar, stuck his head in my office, and I showed him this graph. (As a complete aside and off-topic to the post and this blog, check out this very interesting working paper from Rob which will change a lot of what you think about legal origins.) Rob wondered whether my results from Google Insights did not track data from "happiness studies" where a similar trend shows that people perceive themselves to be happier on the weekends rather than during the week, but neither of us could quickly lay our hands on the data.

The speculation on the relationship to happiness studies really means that I need to draw this post to a close. My intention here was to suggest hypotheses rather than conclusions. Someone with more time and expertise may be able to make more use of the Google Insights data than I can do in a blog post. We sometimes can make the mistake of thinking about bankruptcy just as a legal process rather than a real event that affects real people. The trends from the graph suggest that we might want to give a little more emphasis to the latter idea.


All of my marketing is online, so it's all measurable. Based on my site analytics, it's almost exactly what you described.

The website for my bankruptcy practice follows a very similar pattern. Generally, I see a spike in traffic around early in the week, then the traffic levels around mid-week; but as the traffic levels, the phone calls to my new client line go up. Also, I get cell phone numbers and work numbers, but rarely home numbers.

I also think you're right about the final decision making. About half of my calls are from people who want an appointment within 48 hours. But for the most part, potential clients have been in distress for at least a couple of months. It certainly looks like people are mulling over bankruptcy for awhile, researching lawyers online during the week, and then pulling the trigger at the last possible moment.

Bob writes: "Maybe once a debtor decides to look at his or her bankruptcy alternatives, the personal decision-making process begins to move quickly toward a bankruptcy filing."

I think this is close but not quite right. I think once the family decides bankruptcy, they do move quickly to consult a lawyer. We know it's a big decision a long time in the coming, and once made they want to follow through. But I don't think consulting the attorney results in "moving quickly toward a bankruptcy filing." As I wrote in Saving up for Bankruptcy, I think people often take 6 months or so, maybe a bit less, to save up the attorneys fees, complete paperwork, etc. I think foreclosure-driven cases are an exception to this, but in general, I think the overall process is uneven: slow in coming to realization that bankruptcy is needed, a rush to contact attorney/get in for initial appointment, and then some slowdown in getting everything set up to actually file. I'd appreciate comments from our practitioner audience on this hypothesis.

Man you got to count the "HAMP" effect = debtors working with their Mortgage Co., I've seen for up to a year or two. All of a sudden they are past the acceleration stage and here in Texas the First Tuesday is fast approaching. Chapter 13s are hugely inefficient when it comes to curing huge arrearage amounts. Even more so if its an 80/20... Is it a side effect of HAMP or part of its design? Pushing the Servicer for a MOD post-petition becomes essential when it's been a year full of "Forbearance agreements","HAMP",not qualifying for HAMP...then re-qualifying..then being denied..not because they didn't qualify for HAMP but because that mortgage servicer doesn't have to offer a MOD if they don't want to.. They can go years.... Makes for a very uneven filing rate also to tie back into the conversation.

When it comes to foreclosures, process flies out the window a bit, it becomes a triage situation. 7s can wait..in this State anyway Foreclosures are priority. Pre-bankruptcy counseling sux at this stage especially for our Spanish speakers, older debtors (who aren't so cool with the internet)live out of town etc.. Everything is huge in Texas even our divisions. Ours is bigger than some States. So some of our clients have to drive 50 miles or so making a 100-200 mile round trip (in order to attend a pre-bankruptcy counseling session)that may not entail filing on that particular day to boot. We have a pretty good "funnel" or system.. it works but you can't follow it exactly. Every case has different needs. Got to have a system that is flexible in certain areas.

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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 ([email protected]) 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.