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Helping Those on the Move: Natalie Friend Wilson

©2022 Jerstad Photographics., www.jerstadphoto.com

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

Wilson: It was completely by happenstance. I went to law school at the University of Hawaii wanting to do environmental regulation and environmental litigation. I have a certificate in environmental law. I graduated from law school in 2007 and clerked for Associate Justice Simeon Acoba at the Hawaii Supreme Court.

At that point, it looked like I was going to go into private practice at a firm that did general civil litigation, but where I would also do some environmental litigation. Then, right toward the end of my clerkship, the economy started falling apart. By the time I finished, in September of 2008, private firms had stopped hiring and government agencies at all levels—federal, state, county—had instituted hiring freezes. So, I finished my clerkship and had no job to go to.

Judge Acoba ran into one of his former clerks, Chris Muzzi, at lunch one day, and Chris told the judge that he really needed an associate because his bankruptcy work had gotten really busy. Judge Acoba said, “My clerk just finished, and she doesn’t have a job yet. You should talk to her.”

I hadn’t taken any bankruptcy-related classes in law school. Bankruptcy is not on the Hawaii bar, so I hadn’t studied it. I went into my interview with Chris basically knowing the Bankruptcy Code existed, and that was it. The firm asked me, “We really need someone to do bankruptcy. Will you do bankruptcy?”

At that point, I knew that we would only be in Hawaii for another 18 months. I thought, “I can do anything for 18 months, even if I don’t like it. If I don’t like bankruptcy, I can do something different when we leave Hawaii.” I gratefully took the job, and I ended up loving bankruptcy. My first bankruptcy case was as local counsel for the creditors’ committee of Hawaiian Telecom, which had over $1 billion in prepetition debt, so I really jumped into the deep end. It was a fantastic education.

When we moved to San Antonio in 2010, I was fortunate to have that experience because bankruptcy was still busy, and there was a need for that skill set. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Q: You were in Hawaii because your husband was in the Air Force. How long were you there?

Wilson: We ended up being there for six years, from 2004 to 2010.

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

Wilson: The one that sticks out as the most gratifying is the first case I worked on when I came to Langley & Banack. We represented the Chapter 11 trustee in the AGE Refining case, which was a small, independently owned refinery on the south side of San Antonio. They produced mostly commercial and government products, like jet fuel. They were hit hard by the 2008 recession and filed for bankruptcy.

The debtor in possession had a sale approved for an amount that was not even enough to pay off the secured creditor. A few days before that sale was to close, there was a fire at the refinery. The sale did not close. Instead, a Chapter 11 trustee, Eric Moeller, was appointed.

Moeller had been an executive at Valero, and he shepherded AGE Refining through the repairs that needed to be done and a new sale process. We also got a little bit of help from a recovering economy, but we were able to then sell the majority of the assets to NuStar for a net sale price of more than $40 million, and some ancillary assets were sold to different parties.

This case stands out as one of my favorites because we saved about 400 jobs in our community. That has always been really gratifying to me. That’s the reason we reorganize these companies. That’s the reason we go through the Chapter 11 process.

Q: Are there any other cases that stand out for you?

Wilson: We represented the debtor in ESCO Marine, which was a shipbreaking facility in Brownsville, Texas. They would buy decommissioned ships from the government for a nominal sum, strip them down, and sell the materials. The industry is at the mercy of commodity prices, and in that case, there were allegations of financial mismanagement. When the secured lender stopped advances, they were unable to continue operations and had no other source of significant capital.

The bankruptcy aspects weren’t necessarily different or exciting, but the industry was interesting. That case was also interesting because of the governmental processes we had to go through to get approval when we sold to an affiliate of the prepetition secured lender.

Q: What have been some of the key milestones in your career that have made you the professional you are today?

Wilson: Hawaii is a small market, and I was working at a small firm when I started in private practice. As a result, I got to go to court by myself early on. That gave me a lot of confidence because my partners, who were very experienced lawyers, trusted that I was going to be prepared and successful and didn’t need somebody babysitting me in court. That was a great experience.

In 2012, I got to participate in a 43-day adversary proceeding. Watching the team, which included multiple highly experienced litigators, appellate counsel, and trial support, and seeing how a case of that size is put together was a milestone. It was the first time I’d ever been involved in a piece of litigation that required a team that large.

Arguing before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals felt like a big milestone. Even though the courtroom isn’t big, it’s very imposing. It’s a very different experience arguing before judges who you don’t see on a regular basis. It’s almost like being a brand-new lawyer.

Then, in the summer and fall of 2017, I took two different matters to trial as first chair, so that was a big year. Even though my trials were not as substantial as the one I had participated in in 2012, I was able to put into practice the things that I had observed and learned from working on that team—how to put together my story and my evidence and how to present the case. We prevailed in both trials, so I learned my lessons well!


Q: You said earlier that once you were exposed to bankruptcy, you really liked it. What was your perception of bankruptcy before you started working in that area, and how did that change?

Wilson: I thought it was very code driven. I thought you were going to be very confined by the code, and that it would be largely ministerial or administrative. When I got into it, what I loved about bankruptcy was that it incorporates every area of the law. You have to draw on all of your knowledge about substantive law outside of the Bankruptcy Code.

I really liked delving into these businesses to figure out what it was that caused liquidity issues, and coming up with creative solutions within the parameters of the Bankruptcy Code, substantive law, and the particular confines or parameters of the industry itself to fix the problems so that this business comes out stable and economically viable. It ended up being much broader than I thought it would be. I didn’t realize the amount of creativity it takes to get to a reorganization plan that works.

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

Wilson: TMA has been wonderful for me. I think the cross-disciplinary nature of it is so valuable because I learn so much from the non-lawyer members—from the consultants, accountants, investment bankers, and distressed lenders. I learn a lot from my lawyer colleagues as well.

Having that information helps me be more creative and helps me understand the business concerns, the practicalities of what a debtor or a reorganized debtor needs to be concerned about. Legally we can do this, but does it make good business sense? Is this the best way to go about it from a business perspective? Those relationships and the education that they bring to the table have been quite valuable to me.

Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?

Wilson: I make time every day to exercise. In August 2020, while we were still locked down, TMA Houston NextGen did a Peloton fundraising challenge for the Houston Food Bank. They picked a recorded, on-demand ride, and everybody did it—virtually—at the same time. Then, everybody who participated donated to the Houston Food Bank or a charity of their choice.

I thought it sounded fun, and it benefited a cause I care about, so I downloaded the two-week free trial of the Peloton app. I didn’t have a bike, so I just went outside and did a run. I had never liked running for the sake of running. I could run during sports when there was a reason, but I hated the idea of just lacing up and running. But I found that I liked running with the music and the distraction of a coach that the Peloton app provided. Since I had the two-week free trial, I decided I would try some of the other content, and I really enjoyed running with a coach.

I have not stopped since and recently did my 700th run with Peloton. I did a 10K run in April, which is the longest I’d ever run. The idea that I ran that long for fun and kind of enjoyed it was a revelation.

I also read a lot. I find reading fiction to be refreshing and restorative for my brain and my creativity.

Then, I have four children who keep me busy. It can be really chaotic, so this year, I started scheduling one-on-one time with them. At the beginning of the month, I ask each child to pick four things they want to do for our one-on-one “date.” They pick things like reading, watching a movie, going to the park, playing games, doing puzzles, etc. I write these down in my planner, and each week, they pick which activity from their list they want to do. That kind of felt awful at first, that I had to schedule quality time with my children, but it has made a huge difference in making sure that we conscientiously connect each week. Everybody’s a lot happier when that happens.

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

Wilson: Most people are surprised to learn that I have four children. It’s a little unusual. It’s a big family, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. My boys are 14, 9, and 6, and my daughter is 5. She is a riot and definitely runs the house.

Q: I saw that you served on the board of directors for the Military Spouse JD Network. What did that entail?

Wilson: I was very naïve when I went to law school. I had no idea how hard it can be to find a job in a new location when you don’t have a network, so I was not prepared for the challenge of building and sustaining a career when we were moving every couple of years.

We moved to San Antonio in 2010, when I had been licensed for about three years. I was lucky to find a job I love and people that I love very quickly. A year or two later, the Military Spouse JD Network was founded. At the time, my husband had 12 or 13 years in the service. We knew that he was going to serve for at least 20 years, so we were potentially looking at two or three more moves before he retired.

I got lucky in that we didn’t move again before my husband retired, so I didn’t have to take more bar exams or find new jobs. To show my gratitude for that good luck, I tried to help people who do face those challenges with moving by getting involved and serving on the board of the Military Spouse JD Network.

The mission of helping military spouse attorneys build and maintain their careers while they are following their service member spouse to various duty stations is important. A major component of the Military Spouse JD Network’s mission is to advocate for special admission rules of military spouses who are in the jurisdiction solely due to military orders. Each jurisdiction is slightly different, but these rules allow military spouses to be admitted without taking the bar examination. This process is usually faster than waiting for the next bar exam cycle, leading to less unemployment or underemployment, and helping military families avoid a huge expense on top of all the other expenses that come with a permanent change-of-station move.

Each jurisdiction handles military spouse admission a little differently, but it can include things like waiving or modifying the "time in practice” requirement under the regular rule for admission without examination or offering temporary licenses if the applicant is in good standing in at least one other jurisdiction. Working on these rule change efforts to make it easier for military spouses to get licensed when they move to a new jurisdiction on military orders was really fulfilling.

Currently, 42 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have military spouse admission rules, and five more states are considering rules. That’s fantastic progress in about a decade.

Since rolling off the board, I’ve continued to mentor military spouse law students and lawyers because we have a large population of military spouses who come through San Antonio. I take advantage of my longevity here to connect the newcomers with people within my network who might be able to offer them employment while their spouse is stationed here.

And I continue to advocate for employers to hire military spouse attorneys even if there isn’t a guarantee that they’re going to stay for more than a couple of years. Having lived all over the country or the world and met all kinds of people and worked in all kinds of fields make military spouses highly creative, dedicated, and empathetic lawyers who connect well with clients, are driven to get good results for their clients, and produce great work.

So, even if there isn’t a promise of longevity, you’re going to get great work out of military spouse attorneys for the time that they’re working for you. Besides, there’s no guarantee that employees without a military affiliation will stay longer than two or three years. And you never know what opportunities may come when that military spouse attorney moves on but maintains a connection and relationship with you. My relationship with my first firm continues to be close and mutually beneficial more than a decade after we said, “A hui hou.”

Even though I’m out of the trenches now that my husband is retired, supporting military spouse attorneys remains near and dear to my heart, and I have huge admiration for the military spouse attorneys who have built meaningful careers while also moving fairly frequently.

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