Debts Collected, Debts Repaid
By Stephanie Schorow
Charles Koech JD ’14, a new member of Suffolk’s Law Alumni Board, steps from one world into another. He leaves his office at State Street Bank in Boston, where he is a vice president and counsel, and heads to the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse. Here, in small claims court, he is assigned to represent a client, often a young person facing debt collection from a credit card company.
While the monetary amounts involved are dwarfed by the huge sums passing daily through State Street Bank, the financial obligations can be crushing for that young person in court. “What we’re doing here is we’re helping people in tough situations, to allow them to not bury themselves,” says Koech, who, with the support of State Street, is volunteering his time. “We don’t want them to be buried in small amounts of debt that could be handled but that could become critical very fast.”
Koech sketches out a typical scenario: “Let’s say you’re 24 years old, you’re in a tight family situation, and you’re looking to help around the house with bills. An emergency comes up, and let’s say you have to open up a credit card and spend $2,000 at Walmart for new bedding or new furniture for a younger sibling.”
Then maybe that person, who works part-time or at a low-paying job, starts missing monthly payments, and the debt balloons. As Koech notes, compounded interest—as Albert Einstein once supposedly declared—is the most powerful force in the universe. Now the young person’s future credit status is at risk. And the credit card company still has not been paid and is faced with writing off a debt. Nobody wins.
This is when he or she is referred to the Fair Debt Collection Lawyer for the Day and Discovery Clinic, run by the Volunteer Lawyers Project, which is open only to those who meet a low-income threshold. Attorneys like Koech try to work out reasonable payment options for the parties involved; as Koech puts it, “What can we do to resolve today’s debt?”
His efforts are not for those with resources who just don’t want to pay off their obligations. “We’re not looking for loopholes to get people out of things where they maybe made a mistake,” says Koech. “We’re allowing them to get back to the table to move forward with their lives.”
At age 31, Koech is using his expertise in financial law to provide service to those with low incomes and few resources. This is an attitude nurtured both by his personal life and his Suffolk education.
“When you’re at a certain stage in your career, you want to say, ‘Where can I help?’ ‘Where can I help my community?’” Koech says. “I’m born and raised in Boston. I want to help out the community. I want to help out people who are a little bit disadvantaged. And one way you can do it is by making them a little bit more economically sound.”
Koech, the son of Haitian and Kenyan immigrants, knows what it’s like to have to work hard to reach his goals. He attended community college before transferring to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and worked for “a couple of social justice programs” after graduation. “But I realized I wanted to go to law school and try on a new hat,” he says. Asked why he decided on law school, he chuckles. “This is going to sound kind of corny: I listened to my parents. They were like, ‘You should go to law school.’ I think they just knew me better than I knew myself at that age. And it ended up working out for my personality. I like being persuasive.”
He rattles off the classes and professors at Suffolk Law who profoundly affected his outlook on the law, admitting he could go on and on. Research Professor of Law Marie Ashe introduced him to constitutional law. “Once I started taking constitutional law, I knew law school was the place for me,” he says. When he started working as a prosecutor after graduation in 2014, he took with him lessons from Gregory Massing’s criminal law classes; Massing is now an Appeals Court associate judge.
He recalls with relish the 2014 Irving R. Kaufman Securities Law Moot Court Competition, where his team earned second place. Professor Joseph Franco “prepared us so well—he was amazing,” he remembers. Up against Georgetown and other top schools, the Suffolk team held its own: “We just kept doing well and getting good reviews and getting to the next round. And then before you knew it, we had made it to the final round in front of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and four U.S. Court of Appeals judges.” Koech still lights up when he recalls “seeing Justice Alito’s eyes raise when he saw the second-place brief get placed on us. It was just one of those things, where for that day you show them what you have.”
Suffolk also pushed Koech to focus on financial and business law; he was deeply interested in the implications of the 2008 economic crisis and the effects of globalization. Which is why, after spending two years working as a Middlesex County prosecutor after graduation, he jumped at the chance to work at State Street Bank in the legal division. He relishes the work at State Street, an institution that encourages pro bono work and enables him to do volunteer work in the small claims court clinic.
“I think this clinic is great, because it allows people to at least have their day in court and see what they’re facing. It allows the third-party creditor to settle and get something that’s firm versus just a default judgment. And it allows that person who owes the money to get a clean slate,” he says.
Creating financial stability is a great way to help someone, Koech believes. With assistance from a lawyer, a life can be transformed. After all, law school helped transform him.