Member Spotlight with Leo Spanos
ACBA member Leo Spanos is a Partner with Jen Lee Law, Inc. Prior to that, he was Senior Counsel to Martha Bronitsky, the Chapter 13 Trustee in the Oakland Division for the US Bankruptcy Court in the Northern District of California. Mr. Spanos focuses on consumer bankruptcy, with an emphasis in Chapter 13. More generally, he helps individuals and small businesses in financial stress with issues such as credit card debt, tax debt, mortgage arrears, and creditor negotiations. Mr. Spanos practices in the Northern and Eastern District of California. He is also the Chair of the ACBA Bankruptcy Section.
When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
I always assumed I would be a lawyer or a teacher. Maybe because my dad was a lawyer (before being appointed judge for the Superior Court of Contra Costa County in California) and my mom was a middle school drama teacher. I can’t think of a specific moment but it seemed like an obvious choice after I graduated from UC Santa Barbara. I knew I wanted to help people through the law but I didn’t know where to start. There were so many fields that interested me: business law, immigration, corporate law, real estate, etc. After spending my junior year studying in France, I also dreamed about working abroad. Maybe for the United Nations, for the State Department, or for an international law firm. I visited a relative in The Hague, who was an attorney at the International Criminal Court, and thought I wanted to move to the Netherlands!
It was by chance that I got involved in bankruptcy law. I graduated from UC Hastings in the middle of the Great Recession. I had classmates who had their employment offers rescinded, and I remember thinking I would never get a job. At that point, I wanted to specialize in real estate and business law. I started working part-time for a bankruptcy attorney in San Francisco when my wife found an ad that the Office of the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee in Oakland was looking for a staff attorney. I applied and the rest is history.
If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what would you be doing instead?
It would have to be something related to food or wine, so probably a chef. I started cooking when I was 12 years old when my mother went back to school to become a teacher. I started out of necessity — so called “fend for yourself” nights – but it turned into a labor of love. I have been cooking ever since. I love cooking for my family – my wife, my 12 year-old son, and my 10 year-old daughter – and at gatherings with extended family and friends. Whether it be homemade pizza, homemade mac’n cheese, teriyaki chicken, or something related to my Greek culture such as spanakopita (savory spinach pies made from phyllo dough), pastitsio (pasta topped with cinnamon spiced ground lamb cooked in red wine and tomato sauce and topped with a béchamel sauce), or avgolemono (chicken, lemon, and egg soup). For me, cooking and eating together is about family, culture, and a share connectedness.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were first admitted to practice?
The difference between practice and theory. It’s one thing to know the black letter rules; it’s another to apply them in practice with an actual client and opposing party. One of the biggest challenges after an initial consultation is verifying the information and establishing the facts. This can take weeks or months and be expensive for the client and time consuming for the attorney. I also think law schools can do a better job teaching the business side of being an attorney. Unless you work for the government or as in-house counsel, you will be expected to find clients. This means understanding how to market your services and network. For people working as solo practioners or in small partnerships, you also need to understand the financial side of operating a firm – creating budgets, payroll, taxes, accounting, billing and invoicing, insurance, hiring and training staff, human resources, etc. It can be daunting.
What is the biggest challenge facing you as a lawyer today?
Finding the sweet spot between allocating my time between billable hours (actually working on cases) and trying to grow the practice – meeting people, being active in bar associations and other groups, attending conferences, networking, etc. It never ends. There is always something that needs your attention.
What is your favorite part of being a lawyer?
Knowing that I have helped my clients through a difficult situation. People come to our firm when they are in financial distress, whether it be due to a job loss, an accident or illness that prevented them from working, taking care of a family member, going through a divorce, coping after the loss of a loved one, or trying to manage their business through a global pandemic or unexcepted downturns in the economy. Often they are being harassed by creditors and don’t know where to turn. There is no one size fits all solution and many people are reluctant or ashamed to talk about their financial problems. It’s a great feeling when you know that you have helped someone along that journey from feeling overwhelmed and at a low point to get them to better place in their lives.
What is your dream vacation?
I would love to go on a tour of the Greek islands. Growing up, I spent several summers on the Greek island of Ikaria in the Mediterranean Sea. My paternal grandfather was born in Ikaria and my parents built a house there. I’m hoping one day to go back to Ikaria with my family and then visit other islands like Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, and Crete.
What are you reading now?
I try to find time to read but it’s not easy. Recently, I have read “Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent” by Isabel Wilkerson (examining the history of racial tensions in the United States from 1619 to the present through a caste perspective, as opposed to race, through a comparison with Nazism and the Indian caste system ); “This Land is Their Land,” by David J. Silverman (a history of the Wampanoag Indians, the founding of Plymouth Colony, and the origins of Thanksgiving ); and “Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Angela Duckworth (analyzing what makes people successful across a diversity of fields with a focus on passion and persistence).
What’s one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?
My wife is from Bordeaux, France, and I speak French fluently. Both of our kids are bilingual. Another interesting fact is that I won the 1994 Golden State Warriors’ Free Throw Contest, and I won a free trip to Disneyland for me and my family.
What person, living or dead, real or fictional, would you like to have dinner with?
I enjoy reading about history. There are so many people on this list. Since I recently read a book about the origins of Thanksgiving, I would say the Indian sachem Ousamequin. He was the leader of the Wampanoag tribe when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The Wampanoag tribe had been living in that area for thousands of years. Instead of attacking the colonists, he forged an alliance that was vital to the colonists’ survival. He was hopeful that the colonists and the Wampanoags could peacefully co-exist. I wonder what he would think about how things turned out.
Why do you choose to be a member of the ACBA? What is the greatest benefit you have enjoyed as a member?
I was born and raised in the Bay Area and spent several years living in Alameda County. I worked for the Bankruptcy Trustee for the Oakland Division of the Northern District of California for 11 years. My mom and sister attended UC Berkeley. I love the diversity of Alameda County and I stand for the values of the ACBA. The greatest benefit is having free access to the legal education and the opportunity to meet people from such diverse backgrounds (personally and professionally).
Get involved, join Leo and the ACBA Bankruptcy Section!
The ACBA Bankruptcy Section provides educational and networking opportunities for bankruptcy and commercial law attorneys, as well as a liaison with the judiciary.
Keep an eye out for 2022 dates for our annual East Bay Bankruptcy Symposium, a half-day of hard to get specialty and general CLE for bankruptcy practitioners to keep up to date with the latest developments in the field, held in Oakland and livestreamed, every Fall. View our calendar of events here – ACBA members get free, unlimited MCLE programs, or check out our collection of recordings here, also free and unlimited for ACBA members!
To join the section, please contact our Membership Department at (510) 302-2200 or email@example.com.