Michelle Weinberg is a Supervisory Attorney at LAF (Legal Assistance Foundation) in Chicago, where she represents seniors with consumer issues. After graduating in 1992 from IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law, Michelle began her career as a consumer lawyer in private practice. She joined LAF in June 2001, and has handled a wide range of consumer cases, including claims under the Truth In Lending Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. She has litigated numerous predatory lending, automobile and home improvement fraud, and debt collection defense cases. Michelle received the Excellence in Public Interest Service Award in 2005 from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. She was named the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) Consumer Advocate of the Year in 2011 for her public interest work. Michelle is frequently called upon to speak at legal conferences and to comment in the news media on emerging consumer issues. She is a former Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Consumer Law Committee, has been a member of NACA since 1997, and served on NACA’s board of directors. She is also a semi-professional musician and singer.
Michelle served as an advisor for the consumer-themed July-August 2014 issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. Her article, When Bankruptcy Is Not the Best Option, appeared in the July-August 2012 issue of Clearinghouse Review.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
When John and Dan Sullivan were sentenced to fourteen years in federal prison, that gave me a lot of personal satisfaction. They were two brothers who ran a home repair and mortgage scam that victimized elderly African American homeowners in Chicago for many years—the judge at sentencing called them “financial vampires.” I first ran across these scammers in my first weeks working in legal services when I was asked to assist a staff attorney with a case. I had come to LAF after nearly ten years in private practice as a consumer lawyer. Over the next five years, I represented about a dozen victims who were all telling the same story—it got to the point where a new client would start telling me the facts of her case, and I could guess the guy’s name before the client even told me! They stole millions in home equity from hardworking people. I don’t have the power to lock up criminals, but I was able to provide information and assistance to the federal investigators leading up to their arrest and conviction. (Some of my clients testified in the trial.) It took years. The story is currently featured in an episode of American Greed on CNBC called “Extreme Home Ripoff.”
The best thing about practicing consumer law is making bad guys and big banks cough up large sums of money to compensate the victims of unfair and deceptive practices.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?
I’m not particularly anxious about litigation at this stage of my career. I am probably most anxious when I cannot reach my clients—they are mostly elderly and many have passed away over the years, so I worry that something’s wrong when they don’t return my calls. Sometimes I am afraid they won’t survive the time it takes to litigate their cases.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
I’d like to see more aggressive and complex affirmative litigation in legal services. Too much of the time, even I find myself reacting and defending clients rather than attacking bad practices head on.
What’s your favorite thing about consumer law practice?
The best thing about practicing consumer law is making bad guys and big banks cough up large sums of money to compensate the victims of unfair and deceptive practices. Redistribution of a teeny little bit of corporate wealth to those who really need it. It’s such an uphill battle in this day and age of powerful interests attacking and limiting consumer protections in court and the legislatures.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I don’t know about “guilty pleasures,” like cheesy TV shows or whatever, but I play electric bass in a psychedelic blues-rock jam band and ukulele in a jug band, and that is enough opportunity for guilt-inducing pleasure for me!
Michelle Weinberg can be reached at email@example.com.