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Craig T. Lutterbein: Lucky Dog

Craig T. Lutterbein, photo courtesy of Vasiliy Baziuk, vasiliyimages.com

Craig T. Lutterbein is a senior associate with Hodgson Russ in Buffalo, New York, and focuses his practice on bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, and commercial litigation. He has represented debtors, secured and unsecured creditors, and other parties in U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, including the Southern and Western Districts of New York, and in New York state courts.

Before joining the firm, Lutterbein was an extern for Judge Burton R. Lifland of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. He was named the Robert M. Zinman Bankruptcy Scholar for the LLM in Bankruptcy Program at St. John’s University School of Law for the 2010-2011 academic year. He also served as associate managing editor of the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review and a member of the Polestino Trial Advocacy Institute External Mock Trial Team while a law student at St. John’s. He completed his undergraduate studies at Vassar College, graduating with a concentration in political science and a correlate sequence in quantitative economics.

Q: How did you gravitate into turnaround/restructuring work?

Lutterbein: Coming out of law school, I started in the turnaround industry. I went into law school thinking I was going to be a litigator or a district attorney or take some other position in public service.

I ended up working at a DA’s office during my first summer of law school and realized that it wasn’t quite the work I wanted to do. At the same time, I was selected for a spot on the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, which is run out of St. John’s University School of Law, my alma mater. While in an existential crisis about what I wanted to do with my career and why I was still in law school, I ended up really liking the subject matter of the Law Review. I liked getting into the complexities of the bankruptcy process and how it affects both individuals and corporations, and how many different aspects of the law and a company’s operations it affects. 

So after spending some time on the Law Review my second summer and then off and on throughout the rest of law school, I worked with Bankruptcy Judge (Burton) Lifland in the Southern District of New York. I can vividly remember the first day I walked in for my internship was the same day that General Motors filed its bankruptcy petition. I basically had to plow through news reporters and TV trucks to get into the first day of my internship. Then when I walked into chambers, Judge (Arthur) Gonzalez and Judge Lifland were taking a final read of Judge Gonzalez’s opinion approving the sale of Chrysler’s assets. So it struck me as quite an exciting field on my first day on the job.

Afterward, I started diving into St. John’s bankruptcy offerings, including a master’s degree in bankruptcy, an LLM degree. So I was a bankruptcy/turnaround person freshly minted out of law school. I’m probably one of the few people who was hired straight out of law school to be a bankruptcy attorney.

Q: You came into the profession at an interesting time—post-BAPCPA, when things were changing. It took several years after BAPCPA became law before its ramifications became clear.

Lutterbein: I’ve been practicing since 2010. BAPCPA became law at the end of 2005, which I think put me at a slight advantage coming in. People who were already in the field were still trying to figure out BAPCPA. I came in knowing the law under BAPCPA and being ready to start with that law rather than having to re-educate myself. When the ramifications of BAPCPA were becoming clear I was in a pretty intense LLM program that focused solely on bankruptcy. I got to learn those ramifications from highly qualified professors, judges, and prominent practitioners.

 Q: Since you’ve been around for a while now, if you could start your career over again, would you do anything differently?

Lutterbein: I would have been in a different place if I did it differently. I could have started at a big law firm in New York, or I could have started at a clerkship. Those were options that were certainly available to me coming out of law school and especially coming out of my LLM. Instead I took a job in Buffalo with a big and well-respected firm, but not a mega-firm and not in the mega-city. But I don’t think I would do it differently at all.

I love the firm where I work. I get to work on complex and interesting cases. Sometimes they’re not the billion dollar oil cases, but nonetheless I’ve gotten great experience. I enjoy being in a midsize city in the rejuvenating Rust Belt, which gives me a lot of opportunities to be active within the community and really engage inside and outside the firm with leaders in the broader community, which has been rewarding. I have all that, and I’m an hour away from my family, which is important to me.

Q: What have been some of your favorite or most gratifying engagements along the way?

Lutterbein: We are local counsel to the National Association of Attorneys General. NAAG represents the various states in collective action. There happens to be a Native American cigarette wholesaler that filed in the Western District of New York that several of the states have brought lawsuits against for allegedly not paying their sales taxes.

It’s been an incredibly interesting engagement. Not only do you have pure bankruptcy law, where creditors are suing a debtor, but you also have the regulation of the tobacco industry broadly and then the interactions of bankruptcy and the regulation of the tobacco industry with Native American jurisprudence. You have both the case law on the books now governing Native American relations with the states as well as with each other, but you also have the history of those relations, which makes it complex and interesting and also just a great way to learn about various parts of our history, both in Western New York as well as across the country. 

Q: That’s a fascinating case. 

Lutterbein: And for up here, it’s a big case. There are more than $1 billion in claims. It’s a company that grosses a lot of money. A lot of that goes to taxes and operations, but the numbers are very large, especially for a Western New York case. It’s not the biggest by far. My firm did the Laidlaw bankruptcy, which was filed in the early 2000s but still had some loose ends in my early years here. That was a $5 billion case. But NWS is still a big case, and I’ve gotten a lot of substantive experience on it.

My favorite debtor case was one that a lot of people could say may have been a failure from a bankruptcy and turnaround viewpoint. It ended up converting to Chapter 7 and liquidating, and I don’t know that we were able to preserve a ton of value for creditors. However, it was a hospital on the east side of Buffalo, which is a traditionally poor neighborhood and one that is in a bit of flux right now. The hospital just wasn’t viable. Its beds had reduced by regulations that New York State had passed. It had some redundant services with other hospitals in the area.

But it did serve as a very important anchor within the community. If the site had just gone dark, it would have been a disaster for the community. When we came in, the hospital was already in freefall. There was no way to save the hospital operations. What we were ultimately tasked with doing was preserving the building and selling it quickly enough that the Buffalo winter wouldn’t destroy pipes, wouldn’t destroy the building, so that the building would still have some value and a developer would want to come in and use the property and keep it maintained and looking decent and secure within the community.

Ultimately we were able to come in and stave off creditors ranging from equipment lessors to the various municipalities that wanted to collect taxes. We were able to slow the freefall enough to sell the property to a local developer who has completely renovated the hospital into a business base for several businesses. They run training for nurses. They have a community center on the first floor. Every time I drive by it, I think this is something that wouldn’t be here but for us coming in and being able to slow the process down and make sure it got to a place where it could be a community asset rather than being a drag on the community.

That was about three years ago. There’s the medical corridor on the east side of Buffalo, which as I said is traditionally a pretty impoverished area. That corridor is getting bigger and bigger. There are more hospitals moving in and more research facilities, and that corridor is starting to move down toward that other hospital building that we saved. So the area between the hospital that we were able to transition to a developer before it became blighted is benefiting by being one of the bookends of the corridor. It’s something that’s tangible and proves that our industry is important for saving not only the GMs, banks, and what-not, but also has pretty direct impacts within local communities. 

Q: Who inspires you professionally and/or personally?

Lutterbein: I’ve had a lot of great mentors professionally. The partners I work with at Hodgson, Garry Graber and Jim Thoman, have both provided me with great examples of how to carry yourself as a lawyer and how to interact with the clients—the importance of providing high-quality work on an everyday basis.

Throughout law school I had wonderful mentors. Ray Warner at St. John’s, who runs the bankruptcy LLM practice, was always willing to sit down and talk through issues and help me with a couple of the papers I’ve written, both published in the ABI Law Review and other places, as well as take me through substantive classes that provided the knowledge that I employ every day. Robert Zinman at St. John’s helped to endow a scholarship that deferred some of the cost of LLM program for me, and he took me under his wing as a research assistant. He helped me learn some of the complexities of some of the larger bankruptcy cases.

And then I’ve had a lot of great examples within my family of how to conduct yourself as a good person in the world. My father’s always been an example of someone who’s compassionate, caring, and motivated to do good within the community and the world around him, as well as in the family. My grandfathers set that example very well for him and for the rest of the men in my family. So I hope I can live up to those examples as well.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who was new to the industry or was thinking of getting into the industry?

Lutterbein: A simple piece of advice is to join TMA. I think a lot of this industry is relationships, and putting yourself out into the community and getting to know the local turnaround professionals in your local area, whether that’s through TMA, a local bar association, or a local young professionals organization, is important. One of the best things that I ever did when I moved to Buffalo—I moved here without any friends or family connections in the immediate area—that was beneficial both professionally and personally was to join the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Jaycees. I’ve met some of my best friends and some of the people that I work with through Jaycees.

I think whether it’s your personal life or your professional life, just being present, going out and meeting people, is the only way to really get started. You’re not going to learn anything if you’re just shut in your office all day or shut in front of the TV at home all day. My advice for someone in the turnaround industry is join TMA, join ABI, join various other competing organizations, and do your best to get to every event and volunteer to do projects. Not only will it be professionally rewarding, but it’s also personally rewarding.

Q: What role has your TMA membership played in your career?

Lutterbein: So far in my career, TMA has played two roles. One is it’s allowed me to meet people outside my sphere of influence. At this point in my career, on both the local and national level, it’s helped me meet the people I hope I’ll be working with throughout my career. The local level has built a base of mentors and people I talk to on a regular basis, whether they’re my contemporaries or my bosses’ contemporaries, who are willing to take an active interest in helping me progress my career. On the national or international level, hopefully it helps me meet people I’ll be working with for a while, but it also exposes me to broader ideas.

Sometimes you can get really set in your viewpoint. In Western New York and in New York City, often there’s only one way to do things. This judge wants an order done this way. It’s going to be done this way for every judge. When you get in TMA and the broader community—and I’ve done this through NextGen—you really learn that there may be 50 different ways to do things in 50 different states, and there’s certainly a different way to do things across the border in Toronto. Right now, TMA’s broadening my horizons and exposing me to the different ways people interact. 

Q: Education never stops. There’s always more to learn. 

Lutterbein: I’m not even sure it’s the educational portions of TMA, which I always find great, but just learning from the turnaround specialist in Los Angeles who does things in a way that we would never have thought to do them in New York. Or getting to talk to the people in New York City about the new trend that I might have missed because I hadn’t been down there in a bit. The relationships with people allow you to learn and allow you to keep your finger on the trends in the industry that you would never get if you were just sitting in your office or reading the blogs.

Q: What about outside your office? What are you passionate about? You mentioned your dog Cooper and that he was in your wedding. How long ago did you get married?

Lutterbein: We got married just over two years ago, and yes, my wife Diana and I are a little bit obsessive over our dog. I’m also pretty passionate about the community that I live in, Buffalo in particular and Western New York as a whole. I feel like this could go for Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Detroit or various other cities that people would refer to in a derogatory manner as the Rust Belt. We’ve certainly taken a few licks over the years, but right now there are some pretty amazing things happening in the city.

In Buffalo you have people moving back to the city and a very intense focus on buying local and producing local, whether that involves food or art. Community’s developing where there might not have been before. When I moved onto my street, it had already started to come along. My wife and I bought our house about three years ago in an area that I would never have even walked through when I first moved to Buffalo. Now three years later, you see kids in the neighborhood and you see vacant lots being developed because people are wanting to move back in. Community associations are growing stronger. Restaurants are popping up on corners. We just got a great coffee shop down the road in a building that had been vacant for about 10 years.

The interaction within the community between people who had been there all along and people who are now coming back and repopulating the city has been very positive. Properties along the street are well-maintained. I think that’s both a product of people really making an effort to make the neighborhood look and feel nice and be inclusive as well as some larger institutional forces driving the ability to have a population where we do now. I’ve already mentioned the medical corridor. There are, I think, three new hospitals there and a large research facility called Conventus that’s eight floors and a mind-numbingly large amount of square footage. That was built on vacant lots outside the medical campus on the east side of Buffalo, which is about two miles from where I live, and has brought in high-end research as well as construction work and everything that you need to service a facility like that. 

Q: It sounds like a Renaissance is underway.

Lutterbein: And I think that Renaissance is incorporating, maybe not perfectly but in large part, those who were previously disenfranchised a little bit. One of the things that’s amazing about Buffalo is that we have a huge immigrant population, which seems to be thriving. There are business incubators all along the west side of Buffalo, and you can go in and get amazing art, amazing food, and see great businesses that seem to start in these incubators and then pop up along one of the commercial streets six months later. I really enjoy where the city’s going.

Q: Now, if only you didn’t get all that snow! But then it wouldn’t be Buffalo, would it?

Lutterbein: There’s a funny misconception about Buffalo, although we certainly get more snow than a lot of others. Do you remember that seven feet of snow we got two Novembers ago? I live a mile from downtown. I was at an event for the United Way the night before. It started snowing, and I thought I probably should get home. I got home and watched a movie with my wife. We stayed up later than we intended because we thought, “Hey, we’re getting a million inches of snow, there’s no way we were going to work tomorrow.” I remember waking up groggy, not having slept enough, and looking out my window and seeing the grass in our yard and thinking, “I hate weather men.”

I guess I was really overtired because I didn’t listen to what was being said on the radio. I got to my office and had to use my keycard to get in, which meant that the office was locked and closed, and I realized no one was there. I’m on the eighth floor and my window faces south. I saw the giant wall of snow that was about a half-mile south of the building. Literally, 1½ miles away from where I was looking at grass in my yard, people were in the process of getting seven feet of snow. So, it’s not all of Buffalo that usually gets it. It’s usually south of downtown. Everyone gets it sometimes, but the real crazy snow is south of here.

I went to Toronto for a TMA event the next day, and people were calling me wondering if I was alive and could get food, and I was sitting at the top of the Royal York looking out over Toronto, having a cocktail. I was not inconvenienced by that snowstorm at all, but the office was closed for a week because a lot of the people live down south.

Q: What might people who only know you professionally be most surprised to learn about you?

Lutterbein: I try to be a pretty straightforward guy—what you see is what you get—but I think one of things that would surprise people is how much I do care about the community where I live. I always get the question, “When are you going to move back to New York?” or “Don’t you want to go to a bigger place?” I’ve explored those options for sure. Time and time again, I’ve decided against them. While I like to practice in New York and I try to make my practice focus mostly in New York City and Toronto, I enjoy the community I live in greatly.

The other thing that people might be surprised about is how much I really like to explore. When I go to a new place, I like to figure out the culture. My wife and I went to Paris and Rome in March. My ideal day in Paris was throwing on a backpack with a couple of sandwiches in it and just walking for hours, getting out of the area along the Champs-Élysées and seeing what the communities around Paris looked like. I used to do that all the time in New York City. When I was in law school, I used to throw on a backpack and take the train to a different neighborhood and explore.

I think that’s been a benefit throughout life and in my career. The curiosity to understand how a place works and how the people there work has given me greater insight when I’m working on a file, trying to plan my next trip, or finding the next restaurant that I want to have a good dinner in.

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