Lawyer makes dirty debt collectors pay

The Avenger: Pete Barry goes after those "who live off the misery of others"

In addition to its dangers, loss prevention had its limits. Barry wasn't pulling in much more than $20,000 a year, and didn't enjoy being told what to do by his bosses. So in 1990, he pulled up stakes and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. After graduating with a degree in Political Science two years later, he went straight to law school at William Mitchell, a major feeder of the local legal community.

"I wanted to change the world," he says.

But the change would have to come from the bottom up. As a student, Barry poured himself into pro bono work, representing prostitutes and drug dealers. "It was the least of God's children," Barry says, channeling the priest who leads him in mass every Sunday.

Barry's boot camps have trained more than 200 lawyers. "I'd like to be able to do them from my grave," he says.
Nick Vlcek
Barry's boot camps have trained more than 200 lawyers. "I'd like to be able to do them from my grave," he says.

Since he wasn't making money off his clients, Barry paid for school by working on computers. That's how he met Robert Hoglund, a prominent bankruptcy lawyer in Roseville. Hoglund liked Barry's hustle and took him under his wing.

"He was a real go-getter," Hoglund recalls. "He always did the job right."

Consequently, Barry was that rare solo practitioner who never had to go begging for work. On the same autumn day in 1996 that he got his legal license, he had eight clients waiting to meet with him.

"It never occurred to me that people wouldn't want me to be their lawyer," Barry says, his eyes glimmering with confidence. "I'd want me to be my lawyer."

• • • • •

WITHIN A FEW MONTHS of striking on his own, Barry came across the case that would chart the course of his career. His client was a pretty redhead in her 20s who'd made the mistake of bouncing a $10 check at a gas station. Soon after, she got a call from a debt collector demanding $300—30 times the original amount. When she protested, he offered to meet her after hours in a bowling-alley parking lot to negotiate.

Barry didn't know much about debt law, but he told her he'd take the case. "She was scared out of her wits," he recalls.

Dusting off his schoolbooks, Barry read up on the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Enacted in 1978, the FDCPA established strict rules for the debt collection game. In Barry's reading, nowhere did it say a collector could charge 30 times the amount of a bounced check. So Barry called up the collector and asked for an explanation.

After a stunned silence, the collector told him to consider the matter dropped. If Barry was ever in St. Paul, he added, they could grab lunch. Barry seemed like a guy worth knowing.

"Immediately, I realized how powerful that law was," Barry recalls.

In the years to come, Barry would take other consumer rights cases, but nothing raised his adrenaline—or his bank account—quite like suing debt collectors.

After a few years, though, Barry realized he was fighting a losing battle. No man could beat the industry alone. To truly leave a mark, he'd have to organize a posse.

In 2001, he flew out to San Diego to get started. Meeting him there was an old friend, Bob Hyde. Impressed by Barry's war stories, Hyde wanted to get in on the action. For three days, the two men, joined by Hyde's law school buddy Josh Swigart, lounged in the dining room of a Hyatt, plotting strategy over salads and steaks.

A few weeks later, Barry got a call from a lawyer in Colorado who'd heard about the project. Could Barry show him how it worked? Recruits poured in from Knoxville, Flint, and Honolulu.

Within a couple of years, a few dozen lawyers had taken Barry's free lessons. Many were emboldened to wade into the great sea of Fair Debt law. A few, like Hyde and Swigart, rode a speedboat out into the middle and dove right in. They have the cases to show for it: A naive nursing student told by a debt collector that her delinquent student loans would get her blacklisted from hospitals; a woman who feared her disabled son would die because she wouldn't be able to feed him through his tube if the collector made good on his threat to arrest her.

"Without Pete, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," says Swigart, who still runs a hard-charging practice with Hyde. "He's the number-one motivating factor."

By 2005, Barry was so well known that the National Association of Consumer Advocates awarded him its highest honor: Consumer Lawyer of the Year. The reception was in the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Nicollet Mall. With chandeliers overhead and a few hundred lawyers in the audience, Barry arrived in a sleek blue suit and gold tie just five minutes before his speech. Speaking from bullet points, Barry struck a humble tone, reminding his colleagues to do right by their clients.

Sadly, the elementary school principal who'd humiliated him wasn't there to see it.

• • • • •

THE DEBT COLLECTION industry came to Minnesota in 1949. Prior to that, the industry's heart resided in the desk drawer of Jack Price, a bill collector from Warren, Ohio, and the executive secretary of the American Collectors Association. When Price died suddenly, all eyes fell on Glenn Sanberg. The owner of a Minneapolis collection company, he was celebrated amongst his peers for a rousing speech he'd given calling on debt collectors to band together to fight for their good name. After being appointed head of the ACA, Sanberg drove 700 miles to Warren, picked up the ACA's files, and brought them home.

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