Apologies in Bankruptcy Court: Part 1

by Johnny Tisdale on March 5, 2013

A recent study by two law professors (Robert Lawless and Jennifer Robbennolt) at the University of Illinois College of Law suggests that bankruptcy judges are influenced by apologies.


In the experiment, two groups of actual bankruptcy judges were given a fictional story about a family filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. One group received a version in which the debtors apologized, while the other group received a version with no apology. Of the judges who read the apology, 40.6% approved the proposed repayment plan. Of the judges who read no apology, only 34.4% approved the plan. Lawless admits that this difference is not statistically significant. However, he claims that it does have implications about the manner in which bankruptcy judges reach their decisions: Generally, their decision-making process is influenced by factors other than the law. More specifically, they see debtors who apologize as more likely to make a financial recovery. These findings are interesting for both practical and philosophical reasons.

The down-to-earth, practical take-away from this recent study is pretty obvious. If you want to increase the chances of your Chapter 13 repayment plan being approved, then deliver a heartfelt apology. This goes against the conventional wisdom of the legal profession. Lawyers often tell their clients not to apologize in court because an apology can be seen as an admission of guilt. But bankruptcy law is different from criminal law in two significant ways. First, there is no individual human victim to evoke our sympathy. The “victims” of bankruptcy cases are more numerous and less personal. Second, in bankruptcy law, it is generally the debtor who initiates the case. The “wrongdoer,” then, is a willing participant from the beginning.

Bankruptcy judges must try to determine how likely debtors are to be more financially responsible in the future. If you apologize, you are taking ownership of – accepting responsibility for – the situation. You are admitting that you contributed to your present financial state of affairs. If you fail to apologize, you may give the impression that you consider the creditors to be at fault. Who do you think is more likely to be financially responsible in the future: someone who accepts their share of the blame or someone who places all the blame on others? If you admit that you are at least partially responsible, then you are more likely to make changes to your own behavior to avoid becoming insolvent again.

In Part 2, we’ll explore the philosophical implications of the study.

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Johnny Tisdale

Paralegal at Dowe Law Firm
Johnny Tisdale is a paralegal, web designer, and writer at the Dowe Law Firm. He earned his BS in psychology and ABA-approved paralegal certificate from Auburn University Montgomery in 2011.

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