Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Spring 2004Kellogg School of Management
In DepthIn BriefDepartmentsClass NotesClub NewsArchivesContactKellogg Homepage
From the Dean
Faculty Vita
Faculty Hires
Faculty Bookshelf
Faculty Research: Arvind Krishnamurthy, Finance
Faculty Research: Deborah Lucas, Finance
Peterson Chair of Corporate Ethics established
Jerome Lamet '52
Robert Dotson ' 89
James Weis '93
Steve McDougal '95
John Strelecky '97
In memoriam: Prof. Robert Neuschel
Address Update
Alumni Home
Submit News
Internal Site
Northwestern University
Kellogg Search
  Kellogg alum Jerome Lamet
  Jerome Lamet '52

Alumni Profile: Jerome Lamet '52

No way to pay
Jerome Lamet '52 is an advocate for seniors sunk by credit card debt

Do twentysomethings become credit card debtors in their quest to acquire everything from fashion accessories to compact discs? Sure.

Do baby boomers rely on plastic to keep their lifestyles in lockstep with their neighbors, charging everything from restaurant meals to days at the spa? No doubt.

In a society where almost every age group is maxed out on credit cards, it shouldn't come as a surprise that older Americans, too, are overextended financially. But before he founded Debt Counsel for Seniors and the Disabled (DCSD) four years ago, Jerome Lamet '52 was shocked by the enormous credit card balances carried by many older Americans. Lamet, a graduate of Northwestern University's School of Commerce (the Kellogg School's predecessor) and the university's law school, noticed a trend while serving as a bankruptcy trustee: Among the growing ranks of those filing for bankruptcy were an increasing number living on Social Security or disability checks.

Hoping to save seniors the $2,000 to $3,000 cost of a bankruptcy filing, and to establish a new niche for his law practice, Lamet, 74, established DCSD to serve this segment of debt-troubled America.

Many of DCSD's 3,000 active clients, who are located throughout the United States, once had debt loads of $10,000 to $35,000. It's a crushing amount, especially considering most live well below the poverty level on incomes of $800 to $1,000 per month.

"Debt management is not an option on that type of income," says Lamet, adding that many racked up the bills paying for prescription drugs or trying to meet basic needs.

Because federal law prevents creditors from garnishing Social Security payments, Lamet persuades these creditors to write off what his clients owe, skipping an expensive bankruptcy filing and a trip to court for those who can't afford legal fees and often have limited mobility.

For a $175 one-time processing fee and a $15 monthly retainer, Lamet and his staff of 13 handle all debt collector communications, thereby eliminating a tremendous source of stress for clients.

After receiving as many as 10 calls a day from creditors, one client told Lamet she was ready to commit suicide. Another fielded calls urging him to pay his credit card debt from a hospital bed, where he was laid up fighting cancer.

For their part, clients agree to say goodbye to plastic permanently --- many get a bank debit card instead --- and must make difficult choices as they find a way to live within their limited means.

DCSD, which so far has relied mostly on word-of-mouth and referrals to spread news of its service, may soon mount an advertising campaign. Lamet estimates his potential client pool numbers about 20 million --- the number of Americans he says live solely on Social Security payments.

"He's creative, curious about the law and fearless once he knows it's on his side," says Steven Jay Blutza, whose financial services brokerage firm, Heartland Financial Services, offers Lamet's help to its clients. "We have senior people and disabled people who are despairing because they are living on $700 or $800 a month and think they have to go through the expense of a bankruptcy."

Lamet also draws praise from clients, who send holiday cards and offer to pray for him, but he earns only ire from the bill collectors, who want the money due to them. He can understand: During his 45-year career, he has done almost everything --- including debt collection.

But Lamet defends his Depression-era clients to the end, saying most are tortured by their inability to pay: "My clients grew up putting money away for savings and believing that you always paid your debts on time. They grew up in an era where you always did the right thing."

Citing a decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held credit card issuers responsible for making sure their customers have the ability to pay back a debt, Lamet also places some of the blame back on the creditors. He says many proffer plastic too easily, without checking an applicant's income and financial history.

"During the '90s, a lot of plastic was given to people and nobody was paying close attention," he says. "Some of my clients still get credit card solicitations to this day."

--- Kari Richardson

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University