Vermont Lawyer Jean Murray Takes on the Debt-Collection Industry
Attorney Jean Murray drove more than three hours and had a few choice words for her car's GPS before she arrived in Newfane last month to defend a client in a debt-collection case. But once she arrived in court, it was all over in a hot minute.
The opposing counsel, attorney Michael Williams, had no witness and was unable to proceed with the case, he told Judge Michael Kainen. With a bang of the gavel, Kainen cancelled the $5,688 debt of Murray's client, a 78-year-old man from Westminster West.
Murray didn't appear to be surprised. She's the primary attorney defending Vermont's poorest debtors against a massive collection industry largely hidden from the public eye.
For the past 10 years, she's seen firsthand how lenders, mostly credit card companies, lure in vulnerable people with "rewards" and other enticements that wind up bankrupting them. "I think people want to pay back what they borrowed," said Murray, who grew up poor in Chicago. "But when illness, job loss, death in the family or divorce makes that hard, credit card companies make it harder: A missed payment means, for many cards, that the company imposes a penalty interest rate of 25 to 30 percent."
The companies are "taking what I see as unconscionable advantage of people," she said.
Murray goes to bat for those Vermonters and wins by showing judges that the plaintiffs, who are often large corporations that specialize in collecting bad debts, lack the goods to proceed. They "just don't have the evidence," she said. Murray didn't lose a single one of her cases last year, including the 36 she represented in court. [...]
Murray's work isn't glamorous. She spends her days slogging through reams of court filings and crisscrossing the state to appear in court. Nights at home in Montpelier, she enjoys the TV show "Supernatural," whose main character faces down different forms of adversity.
"If I had said 'Jean Murray is going to change the world,' I don't think I would have picked collections," the 58-year-old lawyer said wryly.
But for Chris Curtis, head of the public protection division in the Vermont Attorney General's office, Murray's mission makes perfect sense. "She's a single mom who broke the cycle of poverty ... and has spent her entire adult life giving back," said Curtis, who worked with Murray at Vermont Legal Aid. "This is more than just a lawyer's duty to their client," he said. "This is personally and professionally significant for Jean."