10 (or more) Questions: Jim Shea, Esq.
10 (or more) Questions: Jim Shea, Esq.
Jim Shea, Esq., president-elect of the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI), has more than 30 years of experience advising financial institutions, debtors, landlords, vendors, committees and other parties in business bankruptcy proceedings. Shea, who is AV-rated by Martindale-Hubbell and is named in The Best Lawyers in America, The Best Lawyers in Nevada, Mountain States Super Lawyers, Top Lawyers, Nevada Legal Elite and Nevada Super Lawyers, is an author and frequent lecturer. He spoke with Ted Gavin about his serendipitous route into bankruptcy law and what is on his radar as he plans his presidency with ABI.
Tell us about your formative years. Where did you grow up and what was your family like?
My father’s work afforded us the opportunity to live in many places when I was young. He was a manager in the J.C. Penney Co. and a promotion meant a bigger store, which generally meant moving to a bigger city. I have an older brother and a younger brother, an older sister and a younger sister and, with the exception of our time in Yuma, Arizona, we would move every three to five years until we moved to Las Vegas, which was where his last store was. He managed the store here and then the regional distribution center until he retired. It was like being a military brat, but without the benefits.
Coming from that background, what led you to be a lawyer?
I was tricked into it!
There was no guiding light. The reason I say I was tricked into it was because my friends in high school all said they wanted to be lawyers. They all changed direction and I found myself the only one of us practicing law.
How did you find bankruptcy law?
As with most good things in life, it was more luck than anything else. I was hired by someone, who later became a Nevada Supreme Court Justice, to come to Nevada as a litigator. One of the partners in my new firm asked me to research whether a proposed course of action would be a violation of something called the automatic stay. I did my research and gave my opinion that, in fact, it would be a violation of the automatic stay as I understood it, to take this course of action. The partner to whom I gave my research memo said that the report didn’t make sense to him, took the course of action, then was hauled before the Honorable Lloyd George, who was our presiding bankruptcy judge, for his violation of the automatic stay. I thought that was interesting.
What was your next step in your career?
I was later lured to a different firm, what is now Gordon Silver, to do litigation work. While I was there, Gerry Gordon was doing the Marina Hotel and Casino case. They had a bunch of claims objections which were all going to go to trial. I was to help a young associate with those, even though I didn’t know anything about bankruptcy. I asked what kind of discovery they had sent out and they both laughed at me and said you don’t do discovery in bankruptcy court. I kept asking questions and they kept laughing at me. I finally asked if there were some books I could look at and they gave me a copy of the Code and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. I took them home over the weekend and came back and pointed out that, yes, in fact, the bankruptcy rules did provide for discovery and so we promulgated some fairly short discovery and, after some brief negotiations, all of the claims were resolved without trial. Following that, it was decided I should do bankruptcy work.
Who was the most significant influence to you as a young attorney and why?
I have thought about that on a number of occasions and I can’t tell you there was a sole guiding force. The father of a high school friend who was a lawyer had some influence in my career path. I had the good fortune of having a lot of great professors including Dan Dobbs, who wrote Dobbs’ Law of Remedies; Tom Manuet, who authored the Fundamentals of Trial Techniques handbook; and, as a law student, I interned with Judge Howard Babcock, who was a 9th Circuit Jurist of the Year while I was with him. I mentioned my first job came from an attorney who later became a Nevada Supreme Court Justice. As far back as high school, I participated in a program where we were coupled with people in a particular profession – for example, if you wanted to pursue law school, they let you work with a lawyer. I worked with the Yuma County District Attorney for a year while going to school.
How did those experiences shape your career?
All of these experiences took the practice of law beyond just being a job. Each one of those people believed they were in a profession and felt they had a responsibility to play within the rules, to play hard, and to always strive to give their best. I was very fortunate because, being surrounded by those types of people, there was never any question about how I was to behave as a lawyer — that’s just the way it was. It wasn’t like you had a choice of saying you could do it this way or that way, because these people were consistent in the way they approached things. It was the cumulative effect of guidance by example. My classmates had the same ethic, apparently. Two of them became bankruptcy judges and my law school roommate is a sitting Arizona Supreme Court justice.
You’ve been a champion of different mentoring programs. You’ve done quite a bit with the State Bar of Nevada and you’re doing quite a bit with organizations like the American Bankruptcy Institute and their mentoring program.
First, I want to thank Maria Chavez-Ruark and her team for heading up the task force. This is something that will pay dividends to our profession but has required a tremendous effort to organize. That said, it is a testament to Maria’s influence on people and the type of people in ABI. We have more than 60 mentors signed up on virtually overnight notice. I’m proud to state that many of the ABI mentoring program components were inspired by our Nevada State Bar guidelines.
How did mentoring become a cause for you?
I became involved because mentoring programs are a way of giving back, and my involvement is nothing different than what other people have done for me without the benefit of a formal program. The guidance I experienced, with various judges, professors and lawyers that guided me early on, is something I feel a need to share with the next generation of professionals. I want to give back to a profession that has been very good to me, and for me.
What do you get from your mentoring experiences?
Sometimes, with mentoring, the success is not so much what we are able to tell, as much as it is to give the person to whom we are talking the opportunity to verbalize their thoughts. I know from more than 30 years of practice that one of the most valuable tools at my disposal is to be able to bounce ideas off someone. Giving someone the opportunity to discuss their concerns makes them think about what is really at issue. By allowing them to verbalize a problem to a mentor, often they will learn that they already know the answer.
You mention ABI quite a bit and, this April, you will become the ABI’s 25th president. We’ve talked to others, like former ABI President Bob Fishman, about how the organization has changed over the years. How do you see ABI changing in the future?
The ABI has always excelled at planning beyond our headlights but never taking our eyes off the road. We have outstanding professional leadership and a number of great volunteer leaders that chart our direction, making constant course adjustments as necessary. We are guided by the needs and interests of our membership and will react and adjust according to what our members need and want.
For instance, I previously served as Vice President of Communications & Information Technology for ABI and was, and continue to be, a big advocate for all the things we are able to offer people online. By the same token, I think there are some things that ABI does that you can’t replicate over a computer. So, while I see, in the future, a desire to offer more online CLE, I don’t believe we’ll ever see the day that everything will provided electronically. Our members demonstrate a desire to keep coming to conferences, because there is a benefit to members engaging and interacting with people and listening to what people have to say.
While on the subject of things changing over time, what goals do you have yet to accomplish professionally in your career. What is still out there on the horizon that you really want to do?
Get involved in the Caesars case! That’s the one thing I’ve had written on my wall since my first day of practice. So if anybody needs help with Caesars, let me know. That would be a dream come true!
Seriously, I don’t have any profession-related goals left unfulfilled. My career as a lawyer has been a great ride. One of the things I enjoy about the practice of law, and especially the type of insolvency work we do, is that every day is an adventure that gives you the possibility of learning a new industry or learning something new within an industry in which you already have experience. My career has taken me in many different directions and provided me some wonderful memories because I’ve been receptive to opportunities that presented themselves, rather than ticking items off a career wish list.
What is the strangest case you ever had?
I’ve had my share of quirky cases, I suppose. My first deposition was poolside at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino. I deposed a lifeguard there. The deposition took about half an hour and I then spent two and a half hours with the lifeguard telling me what it was like when Howard Hughes lived on the top floor.
I have had at least a dozen hotel casino cases. I remember as young lawyer going to casinos and being driven around in limousines and getting VIP treatment, watching the UNLV Running Rebels NCAA Championship season from Sky Boxes owned by a variety of clients. But while casino cases are a different industry, to be sure, the reorganization part is the reorganization part.
The strangest case I ever had was a case I affectionately refer to as the Dr. Feelgood case. This man would move from state to state, where he would hold himself out to be a cosmetic surgeon not yet credentialed in the state, and would ingratiate himself to other doctors and refer patients to them for surgery. The authorities discovered his scam when he offered to do a mother/daughter set of surgeries at a discount and the mother couldn’t understand why a breast augmentation required a gynecological exam, so she reported him.
In the midst of this, we were asked to retrieve an SUV and Ferrari on behalf of a bank client that had loaned money to the individual. We received a call from someone who had the SUV and Ferrari in their possession and knew the bank was looking for those items, and the caller wanted us (the lawyers) to come get them. He didn’t want us to show up with a tow truck, because the neighbors would think he was having his own vehicles repossessed. When we arrived, we discovered that the owner was in the process of modifying the Ferrari into a race car. It was a coin toss for who would drive what. I ended up driving the Ferrari because the racing seats could only accommodate my frame. There I was, driving this car with no functional speedometer, realizing the five-point harness wasn’t connected, wondering if the fire suppression system was functional and if the tires had actually been bolted on, certain my ride would end in a ball of fire on a lonely desert highway, but at least going out in style. The story gets really interesting after that – we’ll save that for the next interview.
What are all your kids doing?
Mostly what they are doing is trying to spend their inheritance before it gets to them! More specifically, my oldest son Kevin is living in the San Clemente area working in management for a national retail grocery chain. My son Brendan is a professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California and my youngest son Connor is a 1L at The Boyd School of Law at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
You mentioned that one of them may be in China this summer?
Brendan might be teaching in China next semester through the University of Southern California, if he’s not pursuing his Ph. D.
That might hopefully be convenient for other some ABI members*.
*The American Bankruptcy Institute’s Beijing Insolvency & Restructuring Symposium, held in conjunction with NYU Law School and the China University of Political Science & Law, takes place in Beijing on July 13-14, 2015.
Tell our readers something about yourself that they would be surprised to learn.
To be truthful, I think they’d be surprised to learn anything about me. They would certainly be surprised to hear that I am a fairly private and shy person.