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Jeremy L. Retherford: Always Tinkering

Jeremy Retherford © 2016 Cary Norton Photographs, carynorton.com

Jeremy L. Retherford is a partner with Balch & Bingham LLP in Birmingham, Alabama, and chair of the firm's Creditors Rights and Bankruptcy Practice Group. He represents creditors in out-of-court workouts, in enforcing rights and remedies outside of court (e.g., non-judicial foreclosure), and in state and federal litigation.

Retherford also has significant experience in receivership actions, both in representing creditors seeking appointment of a receiver and in representing receivers. He routinely represents financial institutions in the management and sale of real property acquired through foreclosure or similar means. Other clients include commercial landlords in landlord-tenant disputes, as well as construction contractors and subcontractors in seeking perfection and enforcement of materialmen and mechanics liens.

Retherford received his law degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Mississippi School of Law and his bachelor’s degree, also magna cum laude, from the University of North Alabama.

Q: How did you gravitate into turnaround and restructuring work, or did you start your career in the field?

Retherford: I started out in the field when I graduated law school in 2003. While in law school, I clerked with the law firm I’m with now, Balch. I had an interest in the courtroom but also in transactional work. I was drawn to the world of creditors’ rights because of that mix between litigation and transactional work. When I got into it, I found that as a creditors’ rights lawyer, my job is about solving problems. I have some really good clients who realize that not every situation needs to be addressed by immediately filing a lawsuit or starting foreclosure. They realize that a lot of times the best way to maximize recovery is an out-of-the-box solution. That’s what’s really drawn me to this type of work, the ability to solve problems with that mentality.

Q: Has that changed over the past few years? Since 2008, a lot of people have been squeezed financially. Did creditors decide that it was in their interests to work at this? Has there been a change in their attitudes?

Retherford: I don’t know that there’s been a change in attitude, but I can’t stress enough how fortunate I’ve been to have really great clients who take this approach. The approach of one of my principle clients has been, “We want to treat a borrower with the respect that they deserve so that once this bump in the road is over, they will still want to be customers of the bank.” They have a tough time right now and we need to address that, but if you go into every single situation with the gloves off, you’re not going to make any friends, and these folks are going to tell their friends, “Don’t do business with that bank.”

Of course, every situation is different, and sometimes you’re not looking to salvage a relationship for different reasons—perhaps you have a bad borrower, a fraudster or something like that.

Q: When you were clerking at the firm, did they try to expose you to all different types of law?

Retherford: Sure. The law firm is full-service corporate firm, so I had the opportunity to see all different types of law. I liked the mix between the transactional and the litigation, but I also liked the group of people, the Bankruptcy Practice group at this firm. I really enjoyed those people, which as you know is almost as important as the subject matter of whatever your job is. 

Q: With the benefit of your experience, if you could start over, would you do anything differently today?

Retherford: I don’t know that I would do anything differently—nothing drastic anyway. Realizing that I’ve had the chance to work with some really great older lawyers over the years—I’m not talking about just inside in my firm, but outside, opposing counsel as well. I wish I had been a little more deliberate in learning from them, about how they handle people, how they handle situations. I’m not a journal keeper, but it probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea to just jot down little nuggets about how they handle the technical part of the law, but also the servicing and representation of clients and clients.

Usually the bankruptcy bar is small enough that once you’ve been at it for a while, you do get to know the other players. Has your relationship with them changed over the years as you’ve gotten to know them better?

It really has. The bankruptcy bar in Birmingham, like most cities, is relatively small, so you see the same people over and over. Your word is important, no matter what you’re doing, but when you’re working with the same people on a regular basis, it’s nice to know that a handshake means something, that someone’s word means something. I hope that I’ve earned the trust and respect from my colleagues that they have earned. There are a lot of folks out there who when they call me and tell me something, I don’t necessarily need a letter confirming that. I know that they’re going to do what they said they’re going to do.

You’re going to have situations where things get tense. That’s the nature of what we do. You’re going to have situations where they’re not your best friend at the time, but you can handle a situation professionally and be honest with one another and when it’s done, you can shake hands. And that’s important to me.

Q: What have been some of your 
most gratifying, favorite, or important engagements?

Retherford: I represented a lender a few years back in a workout matter involving a family business. This was a multigenerational business, so it had been in the family for a long time. Things had gone bad, and they were selling the business. Emotions were high on the borrowers’ side. 

We had a closing here in my office, where we were signing some settlement documents to help them go through the process of selling. My lender client couldn’t be there that day, but at the end of the meeting, the president of the company stood up and, literally with tears in his eyes, said, “I want you to tell your client how much we appreciate how they’ve worked with us and how they’ve treated us with respect through this ordeal.”

That really stood out to me. Going back to my point about being fortunate to have great clients, my client did what they needed to do to protect the bank, but at the same time they treated these people like the humans that they were and they were conscious of what these borrowers were going through.
This was a situation where, as we say down here, these were good people, they just had some problems with their business, and the economy certainly didn’t help the situation either. 

Q: Who inspires you professionally and personally?

Retherford: I have three children at home, 3-year-old twins and a 1-year-old. My wife Lora is the person who inspires me. I come to the office every day, and she stays at home and chases these three kids around the house. She makes what I do look easy. Any time I have them by myself and I find myself constantly thinking, “When is Mom coming home?”

Q: How did you and your 
wife meet?

Retherford: She was still in college finishing her master's in accounting. I had just graduated. My brother was friends with her, and she came over to my house one weekend when my brother was in town. We met, started dating, and were married a year and a half later.

Q: Who else 
inspires you?

Retherford: Professionally, the person who comes to my mind is my mentor here at the firm, Hamp Boles. Hamp is the go-to banking lawyer in a lot of ways in the state of Alabama. He has taught a number of young lawyers, myself included, what it means to serve a client.

Two things stand out to me about him and always have. One is that he is extremely responsive to his clients. You know that he really has his clients’ best interests at heart. He’s not there simply to do the one task that they’ve asked him to do. He looks after the interests of the client as a whole. That’s something to me that differentiates a good lawyer from a great lawyer. A good lawyer can close the loan or file the lawsuit, but the great lawyer is the one who is out there thinking about the industry that the client is in, thinking about potential risks that the client needs to be thinking about that maybe the client is not thinking about. That’s something that Hamp does really well. 

The other thing that stands out is that to this day, when Hamp's children, who are now adults, call him—and they often do just to touch base with him—he answers the call. I’ve been in meetings with him before where he’ll answer the phone and say, “Hey, I’m in a meeting. I’ll call you back,” but when his children call, he answers the phone. As a young dad, that stands out to me. 

Q: He keeps his 
priorities straight.

Retherford: That’s right.

Q: What advice would you have for someone who was new to the industry or was thinking about getting into the industry? 

Retherford: Remember the importance of relationships. Regardless of whether you’re a workout lawyer or a turnaround expert in accounting or whatever it may be, we’re in the service industry. Servicing our clients and forming relationships with our colleagues are the core of what we do. You can be the best technical lawyer, but if you don’t pay attention to relationships, you’re not going to get very far. 

Q: It’s a relationship business, which is one of the reasons TMA was formed. Were you one of the founding members of the Alabama Chapter?

Retherford: I was not. One of the partners in our firm, who now is retired from private practice, was one of the founding members so I have been involved for a while.

Q: How did you hear about TMA, and what made you decide to join?

There were two reasons. One, Clark Watson, the partner who was a founding member of the chapter, encouraged me to get involved. Then, with the bankruptcy/turnaround community in Alabama being what it is, you look at the membership and realize it’s where the players are, where the movers and shakers are, so it’s a group of people that you want to be around. 

Our president this year is Eric Pruitt. He’s doing a great job of putting together meetings that really are substantive and informative in nature. You have the dual benefit of being able to network while at the same time being able to actually learn something.

We had a meeting today at lunch where there was a presentation and then there was good discussion about asset-based lending between an asset-based lender and a lawyer. A lot of presentations that you go to, you listen, you clap at the end and then you leave. Today, there was question after question after question at the end of the presentation, which is always a sign to me that it was a good presentation. People have questions. People actually paid attention. Even though it was a room full of people, it turned into a discussion of some issues that had clearly been on some people’s minds.

I think the biggest benefit of TMA is just in having a calendared series of events, knowing that I’ll be able to see people I see at the courthouse. Without TMA, I wouldn’t see these people on a regular basis in a nonbilling situation.

I’ve been on the board of directors for a number of years, and I’m the president-elect of our Alabama Chapter. I’ll be president next year, so I’m a big fan. 

Q: What do you do outside the office? With three youngsters, I know where a majority of your time probably goes.

Retherford: The best part of my day is when I get home and I have three kids running up to me, screaming, “Daddy’s home!” Whatever’s happened that day, it makes it worth coming home, and it’s hard not to be passionate about that. 

One thing that I do in terms of "hobbies," if you can call it that, is that I’m a member of a competition barbecue cooking team. I’m always looking at new recipes and getting together with other members of the team. We’ve been doing that off and on for 11 years now. When people started having kids, we had to slow down a little bit. But we’re still doing it, and the next competition is the first week in May.

Q: How many competitions do you typically enter each year?

Retherford: Not too many anymore, just two or three a year, all local. 

Q: What’s been your biggest win?

Retherford: We don’t have as many wins as we'd like, but we took home Grand Reserve Champion a few years back at a competition here in Birmingham called Stokin' the Fire, so that was a pretty big win. Each member of the team takes the lead on one cooking category. I do ribs. There’s a little internal competition about whose meat does the best at a particular competition. That keeps it interesting. 

Q: Is your sauce and rub 
constantly evolving?

Retherford: Yes, we’re always tinkering. That’s the fun part of it. We’re always adding something, taking something away, just trying something out. The good thing about that kind of practice is that you have a big plate of barbecue at the end!

Q: And a cooler nearby, too? I know how these things work.

Retherford: That’s right.

We all took our wives to one competition, and the next one, we asked, “Would you all like to go back?” And they said, “No, we’re fine. That can be your thing.” 

Q: What items are on your 
bucket list?
Retherford: I run a little bit. A few years back, I did a full marathon. One thing on the bucket list is to do a second marathon but to take the training much more seriously than the first time around. I’ve always heard that you’re ready to do your second marathon after you forget how bad the first one hurt, and frankly I’ve not forgotten how bad the first one hurt yet! 

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