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."
Murray's empathy for the underdog started with her own upbringing in suburban Chicago. As a child, she would tag along with her mother, who ran after-school programs for low-income kids in the downtown YWCA. Her disabled father didn't work, and Murray — the third of four girls — remembers a "go without" childhood. She and her sisters shared two bicycles until Murray's friends all chipped in to buy her a Schwinn 10-speed on her 16th birthday.
Two years later, she was married. She divorced at 19 — after giving birth to her only child, a daughter named Erin.
She moved back in with her mother and grandmother, and the three took turns caring for Erin. Murray found work at an insurance company and attended classes at night. She recalled bringing her pajama-clad daughter along when she had evening exams.
By the late '70s, Murray had decided she wanted to become a lawyer. Her resolve strengthened when she was fired from a job — unjustly, she said — and later, when she felt that a landlord treated her unfairly.
"I was tired of being on the underside of things," she said.
In 1987, she got her undergraduate degree from SUNY Empire State College and headed to Boston for law school. While pursuing her Juris Doctor degree at Northeastern University, she spent every summer volunteering for legal aid organizations.
Postgraduation, Murray landed a paid job at a legal services organization in Massachusetts before becoming a staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid's Poverty Law Project in 1998. [...]