Top 10 Reasons We're Building Upsolve

By Rohan Pavuluri

Last week, I decided to take time off from Harvard to keep building Upsolve. To mark the occasion, here’s a list of the top ten reasons Jonathan and I are working on Upsolve.

(1) Bankruptcy transforms lives. People go from worrying everyday about the debt they owe to having a second chance at life. Most of these people get debt from sudden financial shocks like medical illness, job loss, and divorce.

(2) 10x to 20x the number of people should be filing bankruptcy as those who file today. 527,000 people filed Ch. 7 last year, but 47 MM Americans live under the poverty line and the same number have outstanding debt that averages $132,086.

(3) Bankruptcy is good for the economy, especially for low-income communities in financial distress. When their wages aren’t garnished, people have a greater incentive to seek employment rather than rely on government benefits. On average, those who successfully file for bankruptcy earn $6000 more in the year after they file than those whose cases are dismissed. 

(4) Millions of Americans cannot file for bankruptcy today because they don’t have enough money to pay for a lawyer, legal aid clinics turn them down due to limited resources, and the process is virtually impossible to complete without expert help.

(5) We hope to serve as proof-of-concept for other areas of the law. If we can succeed with bankruptcy, we hope others will tackle areas like employment, housing, and family law.

(6) We see ourselves as policy advocates. From our meetings with staffers on Capitol Hill, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we believe that policy goes hand-in-hand with innovation. Right now, regulatory uncertainty and a lack of public technology funding curbs entrepreneurs.  

(7) We want to bridge the gap between lawyers and technology entrepreneurs, getting both sides excited by the potential of consumer-facing products. Lawyers, by training, are often risk averse. In the words of someone we met in Washington, “Most startup people come in here and don’t know shit about the law.”  

(8) Technological innovation has often neglected to help low-income populations. We can only think of a couple of technology nonprofits that are household names, namely Khan Academy and Wikipedia.

(9) We only know of two technology companies dedicated to helping low-income Americans solve their own legal problems. One is ProBono.net and one is JustFix.nyc, whose team sits next to us at Blue Ridge Labs in Brooklyn. The room for growth motivates us each day.

(10) We aim to lead a paradigm shift in the law from professional services to technology. When Americans have a legal problem, we want them to first ask the question, “what technology company can help me?” not “what lawyer can help me?”

 

On Moral Hazard

By Rohan Pavuluri

July 25, 2016

Those who oppose bankruptcy often argue that it creates moral hazard. If people or companies can just fill out some paperwork to get out of debt, the logic goes, they’ll make irresponsible financial decisions.

We don’t believe this for two reasons. 

First, Congress has created several checks to prevent abuse of the bankruptcy system. A DOJ-appointed trustee reviews each case to root out fraud. Anybody who earns over half his state’s median income, purchases a single item for more than $500 within 90 days of filing, or transfers property out of his name within the last year of filing is presumed to be abusing the system. Several more checks also exist, resulting from a 2005 Congressional Act signed into law by President Bush.

Second, we know the most common cause of bankruptcy is unexpected medical debt. Divorce, job loss, and small business failure are other leading causes. In cases where credit card debt is the main driver of bankruptcy, predatory lending has often been part of the equation. The data shows that the majority of people who file for bankruptcy are not trying to game the system. 

Jonathan and I agree that bankruptcy should never provide an excuse for people to live beyond their means. That’s why we focus not just on helping people file for Chapter 7, but also on helping them rebuild their finances after they receive their discharge. Today, Congress requires Americans to take a two-hour budgeting course after their bankruptcy case. That’s helpful, but it’s not nearly enough. Through sustained financial education, we aim to make sure that our debtors never end up in their position again.

As Bruce Mann outlines in Republic of Debtors, bankruptcy played a large part in defining the American experiment. One only needs to consider the alternatives—prison, servitude, and death—to understand why.

In our view, Chapter 7, like Chapter 11, is one of the best parts of American capitalism. It allows honest but unfortunate debtors—like Abraham Lincoln—to get back on their feet and reenter productive economic life. It’s about second chances. And that’s something we can all appreciate. 

Where We Fit In

By Rohan Pavuluri

July 20, 2016

At Upsolve, our friends often ask us the same questions: “Isn’t bankruptcy pretty complicated? Doesn’t it help to have a lawyer?” Our answers never change. Yes.

Ten times out of ten, Jonathan and I would prefer to live in a world in which every low-income American had access to a free lawyer whenever they needed help.

It’s an unfortunate reality, however, that this is not the case—and it never will be. There will always be more people who seek a free legal aid lawyer to help them than there are legal aid lawyers available. Today, legal aid turns down 4 out of 5 Americans.

So legal aid clinics have barely any resources to actively look for people they can help. As we’ve said before, this is a problem because at least ten times more people would benefit from bankruptcy than those who file.

This is where we fit in.

We’re helping the low-income American who gets turned down every Monday morning when she calls her legal aid clinic to get bankruptcy help. 

We also aim to help the 10 million Americans who would benefit from bankruptcy but don’t even try to go through the process because they don’t know it can help them.

Our Academic Inspiration

By Jonathan Petts

July 18, 2016

Our work at Upsolve is inspired by the Financial Distress Research Project (FRDP), a landmark project designed and led by our three advisers: Professor Jim Greiner of Harvard Law School, Professor Dalie Jimenez of the UConn Law School, and Professor Lois Lupica of the University of Maine School of Law. 

In 2012, the professors realized that something was wrong with legal self-help. Virtually all self-help materials failed to address the psychological and cognitive barriers that prevent low-income individuals from using them. So the professors began to design their own legal self-help materials with cartoon characters, affirmations, and plain language.  And they began evaluating the effectiveness of their materials through randomized-control trials. So began the FDRP.

Upsolve is a nonprofit startup that aims to scale the FDRP’s self-help materials using technology. We’ve created our first online product to expand access to Chapter 7 bankruptcy for those who can’t afford a lawyer. We want to make filing for Chapter 7 simple, fast and free, wherever possible.

Giuseppe's Story

By Rohan Pavuluri

July 16, 2016

“Hi Rohan,” Giuseppe told me over the phone. “I don’t think I properly thanked you earlier today. I don’t have anything right now. But I’d like to make a donation in a few weeks. When I’m back on my feet.”

I fell silent.

We met Giuseppe for the first time this past Monday. He wanted to file bankruptcy but couldn’t find anyone to help him. He didn’t have money to pay for a private attorney. A legal aid clinic had turned him down because he didn’t have any assets that creditors could take. When his nonprofit financial counselor told him about our service, he decided to give us a call.

“The creditors. They’re the worst on Sunday mornings. They won’t stop calling me,” Giuseppe explained when he came into our Brooklyn office.

Giuseppe had a simple case.  Within an hour of walking into our office, Giuseppe completed our digital survey. In doing so, he had completed almost all the work he needed to become debt free.

As he left, Giuseppe explained how he ended up in debt. He used to own and operate a tuxedo rental store, which he hoped to sell for his retirement funds. When the time came to sell, however, Giuseppe’s buyer ran the business into the ground and, as a result, never made enough money to pay Giuseppe the full amount.

The last six weeks have been the most meaningful of my life. On June 1st, I showed up in New York City with a hypothesis. Technology could transform the way low-income Americans got a second chance at financial livelihood.

A couple weeks later, chance put me in touch with a lawyer who shared my hypothesis. A couple weeks after that, we started Upsolve.  

Since then, Jonathan and I have seen promising signs we were right. We’ve started filing petitions and begun to iterate on our product. We’ve received inbound traffic through our digital ads on Google and Facebook.

We’re also lucky to have received referrals from nonprofit stakeholders throughout the city—like Legal Hand and the Financial Clinic. And we’re grateful to have partnered with the New York State Court System.

Most of all, we feel lucky to have crossed paths with Giuseppe and the others who have used our product.

Why Chapter 7 Is Important

By Jonathan Petts

July 12, 2016

To state the obvious, Chapter 7 transforms lives. For the “honest but unfortunate debtor,” Chapter 7 erases medical and credit card debt, and stops for harassing bill collectors.

Excluding cases that are dismissed or converted, a remarkable 99% of Chapter 7 cases result in a discharge. Even better, the debtor keeps everything he owns in 93% of cases. And most of the cases where the debtor does give up property (usually real estate or tax refunds) could be avoided with good planning.  

The importance of this outcome, erasing unsecured debt and keeping assets, is difficult to overstate for debtors in financial distress. As any consumer bankruptcy lawyer can tell you, Chapter 7 lifts a huge boulder off of one’s shoulders, creating a new beginning in life. 

In short, Chapter 7 is one of the very best parts of American capitalism. Personal success stories following bankruptcy abound. Walt Disney’s first movie studio resulted in a bankruptcy filing, before he bounced back to create cartoons that would delight millions. Milton Hershey had two failed candy businesses, before he found his chocolate recipe that Americans still love today.

And, of course, Abraham Lincoln declared bankruptcy due to a failed business in 1833, before going on to become a self-taught lawyer and our 16th president -- to unify the country, write the Gettsyburg Address, and end slavery. Now that’s a turnaround.

At Upsolve, we’re dedicated to making the benefits of Chapter 7 more accessible to low-income Americans in financial distress.  

The Best Kept Secret in American Law

By Jonathan Petts

July 10, 2016

Chapter 7 is one of the most powerful tools that Congress provides to transform the lives of Americans in financial distress.  It improves balance sheets, emotions, mental outlook, and even credit scores in many cases.

So why were only half a million chapter 7s filed last year if 47 million Americans live under the federal poverty level and the same number have overdue credit card debt averaging nearly $16,000 per household? Why did far less than 5 percent of these financially distressed Americans invoke Chapter 7 relief?

Given the power of a Chapter 7 discharge, that percentage is absurdly small.  But it’s been fairly consistent over the past decade.

Chapter 7, it would seem, is the best kept secret in American law.  

5 Questions with Gov 2.0 Grant Winner Rohan Pavuluri

July 8, 2016

Originally published in the Huffington Post

Rohan Pavuluri ‘18 is the 2016 IOP Gov 2.0 Grant recipient. A statistics concentrator, he is a co-founder of Upsolve.org, a non-profit organization created to help low-income New Yorkers navigate the process of bankruptcy in order to gain a second chance at sustainable financial livelihood. We asked him about the work he’s doing this summer with his grant and about the upcoming presidential election.

 

Tell us about the work you’ve started at Upsolve.org.

Legal aid clinics turn away more people than they can help because there aren’t enough free lawyers to go around. To close this gap, we’re using technology to help people navigate the legal system on their own. The Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) at Harvard Law School, a team I’m involved with on campus, has produced innovative legal self-help packets to rigorously test whether self-help works. At Upsolve.org, we aim to scale this academic research.

We’ve created a digital product, using insights and content from the FDRP, to streamline and simplify the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. After a summer of observing how people use our product, we hope to take steps towards automating the Chapter 7 process for people who can’t get a lawyer.

We received our initial funding by winning the Harvard Innovation Challenge and the Harvard Institute of Politics’ Gov 2.0 Grant. We’ve also been lucky to receive support from Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Program and the Robin Hood Foundation’s Blue Ridge Labs.

 

What is design thinking and how did you use the process in your work at Upsolve.org?

In my mind, design thinking is a fancy term for common sense. It’s the idea that before you solve a problem, you must understand the daily lives of the people who face it. In many ways, sociologists and anthropologists were the original design thinkers.

At Upsolve.org, we believe the most important part of our work is understanding the pain points of people who file for bankruptcy. We’ve spent countless hours sitting by their side as they use our product. This stems from one of our core values. Legal services need to be radically redesigned from the perspective of people with legal problems—not the lawyers who work for them.

 

What has surprised you most in your Upsolve.org work so far?

I’ve been most surprised by how complicated it is for someone to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on their own. You have to go online and individually print out roughly 20 different forms. It’s hard to figure out which forms to print because they’re mixed in with forms you don’t need. If you’re lucky enough to print all the right forms, good luck understanding terms like “unsecured non-priority debt.” And then get mentally prepared to list every single thing you own, earn, and pay. It’s a miracle anyone has ever filed for bankruptcy on their own.

 

Last year you served as a Director’s Intern at the Albright Stonebridge Group. How did that experience inspire you to think about innovation and entrepreneurship?

I loved the Albright Stonebridge Group because the firm’s culture enabled me to pursue my own projects revolving around data and technology in an unfamiliar context. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial again this summer—this time, starting totally from scratch. For me, there’s nothing more fun, exciting, or meaningful than building something out of nothing to help people.    

 

With all eyes on the 2016 presidential election, what would you hope to hear from candidates on the issue of bankruptcy and access to equitable legal services?

Bankruptcy is the most remarkable yet least used form of government assistance. We believe filing for bankruptcy is no different from getting a tax deduction. But many people don’t get a fresh start through bankruptcy because of social stigma, complex forms, and lack of awareness. I’d like to see candidates invest more time into thinking about how technology can transform the delivery of government services. I also haven’t heard a single candidate address the fact that 8 out of 10 low-income Americans cannot access a free lawyer for their civil legal problems. This needs to change.