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VOL. 38 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 28, 2014

Volunteering, helping clients is Salas’ reward

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Maria Salas’ law practice has such a good reputation that she doesn’t need to advertise. A whopping 95 percent of her business is from referrals.

Salas, a bankruptcy lawyer for 20 years, is just as well known for her activism and volunteer work. Her long list of community and professional commitments includes seats on the boards of the Nashville Bar Association and Nashville CARES.

Honored by the Bar for her pro bono work, Salas also received the MTSU Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award for Service to Community, which cited her contributions to her neighborhood, the legal profession and the gay and lesbian community.

What allows Salas to give so much back is a sole proprietor model that allows her the flexibility she needs as a single mother, and emphasizes personal service to people who approach her at the lowest point of their lives.

Expanding the firm to churn a higher claim volume would never afford the kind of satisfaction she gets from her work, Salas says.

Maria Salas

Employer: Sole proprietor, Salas Law Group

Academic background: Nashville School of Law

Quote: "Bankruptcy law is very structured; you have a code that you follow so there’s set procedures but it’s not boring because of the people that walk in and sit in these chairs. Every story’s different. I like it because I get to help people, I’m good at it and I make a good living doing it.”

“I’ve never had an insurance adjuster call me up and say, ‘Thanks for saving me $10,000 on a claim’ but I have people hug me, write me notes, send cookies and say, ‘You made a difference in my life. You stopped this garnishment. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and you saved my house.’

“People come in here really needing relief, and you can make an impact. And, believe me, it’s never boring.”

In her 20 years in consumer bankruptcy, Salas has seen business go up and down – but usually up. Tennessee has historically had one of the highest consumer bankruptcy rates in the nation, as well as one of the highest rates of divorce, a major contributor.

For the past few years, business has been down for bankruptcy attorneys, most of whom work as solo practitioners or at small shops. But it’s seeing a slight uptick and could rise this year.

That’s because bankruptcies tend to go up as the economy improves. Lending standards relax, leading to more defaults, and consumers are more motivated to seek relief from creditors when they have something like a job or a house at stake.

“The economy runs on credit. At some point people have to get back to work, have to be in a position to borrow money,” Salas says.

“When the economy improves, bankruptcies go back up. You borrow money with intentions to pay, something happens and you can’t and that’s when bankruptcies get filed.”

But in a world where you eat what you catch, Salas has never gone hungry.

After graduating from Nashville School of Law, she worked at a firm specializing in product liability defense and general insurance defense litigation. Then a law school friend tipped her that veteran bankruptcy attorney Edgar Meyer Rothschild III was seeking help.

“I went to talk to him, he offered me a job and that was it,” Salas recalls of Rothschild, who mentored her and became her law partner.

The field immediately suited her outgoing nature.

“I like bankruptcy because I get to talk to people all day long,” Salas explains. “The law is very structured; you have a code that you follow so there’s set procedures, but it’s not boring because of the people that walk in and sit in these chairs.

“I’m a real socializer; I like to talk to people. Every story is different. I get to help people, I’m good at it, and I make a good living doing it.”

Balancing work with being a single parent is still tough. Salas likes to tell people that being a parent is the best job she’s ever had, the hardest job she’s ever had and the most important job she’ll ever have.

But she’s cracked the code on how to have a sustainable career while still having time to give.

“I’ve been in the model where you’re filing 100, 150 cases a month,” Salas says.

“I don’t want that stress. It’s just not my personal preference for the service it gives to the clients; it’s not my personal preference for how I want to live my life.

“As a single parent, I really need the model that I’ve set up. And it provides a good enough living that I can afford the model that I’ve set up.”

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