The primary wish of so many low-income clients struggling with debt is simply to have a fresh start. That is exactly what Matt Leff has been providing to pro bono clients for the past seven years through his volunteer work with VLJ.
Matt, a patent attorney at Merck & Co., Inc., leads the Bankruptcy in a Box Program, which offers low-income clients a new financial future after they have become overwhelmed by debt. Merck attorneys, paralegals, and administrative staff work together to prepare and file Chapter 7 petitions on behalf of their pro bono clients.
Matt has worked at Merck as a patent attorney since he graduated from law school 15 years ago. Bankruptcy, then, was completely new to Matt. But after the start of the Bankruptcy in a Box program in 2009, Matt says, “The energy surrounding it was something that I wanted to be a part of.” After learning the ins and outs of bankruptcy through a case he handled with another attorney, Matt was hooked.
In 2011, Matt accepted an offer to manage the program. Since then, not only has he handled 13 cases himself, but he has also recruited others at Merck, where pro bono is highly encouraged, to participate. Twenty-seven attorneys have handled a total of 74 cases since the program began. Matt also emphasizes how critical non-attorneys – paralegals or patent administrative associates – are to the success of the program. “They feel just as passionate [as attorneys], and the support they provide is invaluable.”
Matt organizes trainings, which take place every other year, to cover the basics of handling a bankruptcy matter. The presentations emphasize the support that VLJ and Lowenstein provide to reassure any volunteers who may be intimidated by learning a new area of law. “Matt Leff is the reason the Bankruptcy in a Box Program has been so successful,” says VLJ Managing Attorney Jessica Kitson. “His passion for the program is infectious and he works tirelessly to support his colleagues and place as many cases from VLJ as possible.”
Matt received his undergraduate degree at the University of North Dakota, completed doctoral work at the University of Louisville, and earned a law degree from Franklin Pierce Law Center (now the University of New Hampshire School of Law).
One of the most meaningful bankruptcy cases that Matt has handled involved a woman who had fled Peru with her young son due to domestic violence. After working in America for 20 years, she was diagnosed with cancer, and began to fall behind on paying bills. Matt, working with Stephanie Ricardo, a Merck colleague and patent administrative associate, prepared and filed the petition and represented the client at a 341 meeting. After the bankruptcy was complete, the client could not have been more appreciative of the assistance she received from Merck.
Matt believes pro bono is simply “the right thing to do.” He says, “As attorneys, we understand the complexities of the legal system, but it’s nuanced and complex. We can provide support for those individuals that need guidance to navigate that system.”