Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 29, 2016

Making a tough job look easy

Chapter 13 Trustee Kara West makes running her office look like a walk in the park

Kara West is the Chapter 13 trustee for the Southern Division of the Eastern District of Tennessee. She credits her predecessor, Ken Still, and her staff with the success of her office. - Photograph by David Laprad

Kara West has a remarkably calm demeanor given the amount of work on her plate. As the Chapter 13 trustee for the Southern Division of the Eastern District of Tennessee, she’s responsible for handling approximately 11,000 cases. The previous week’s docket alone was 80 pages long, and contained about 300 cases.

On top of that, West will be hosting her husband’s 40th birthday party in a few hours, which is no small matter, either. Yet her face bears no signs of stress or anxiety; rather, she looks as though she’s just been given the royal treatment at a luxurious day spa.

What’s her secret? “I have a lot of help,” she says, a southern smile crossing her face. The effect is similar to dropping a spoonful of sugar into a glass of iced tea.

West became the Chapter 13 trustee last year when her predecessor, Ken Still, retired after 42 years in the position. She still credits him with how well the office, located in what was once known as the Krystal Building, is run.

“He and Judge Ralph Kelley created a great program,” she says. “Their work is known nationally among the Chapter 13 community.”

Not only that, but West says Still was an extraordinary mentor during her five years working as his staff attorney, beginning in 2010. “He never turned down an opportunity to talk with me about how this place is run,” West says.

Still also left West with a well-trained staff of about 30, she says. “I didn’t have to go out and find these wonderful people and train them,” she says. “I inherited a great office with incredible employees.”

West does have big shoes to fill. In addition to creating a nationally-regarded bankruptcy program and an office that functions like a well-oiled machine, Still had one of the highest collection rates in the country. This is still the case with West. Once again, she defers credit, this time to the local bankruptcy bar, which she says is beyond congenial.

“When people don’t have money, it doesn’t make sense to do a lot of expensive litigation. No one will get paid. The creditor and debtor bars both realize that, as do the judges,” she says. “So instead of arguing over cases, they come up with reasonable solutions.”

West does work diligently. Together with her staff, she reviews the paperwork debtors file to ensure they qualify, makes sure their plans are in compliance with federal bankruptcy code, officiates the meetings of creditors, oversees the process of collecting money from debtors and paying creditors, and monitors her district’s cases as they progress.

Although West is an administrator, she’s actually an independent contractor working for the U.S. Trustee, which itself is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice. While even a basic explanation of where she fits within the machinations of the federal government can stagger the mind, West brings a measure of humanity to process.

“Our purpose is to help people. So even though we have to give tough love, there is love there, and we are rooting for people to succeed,” she says. “Most of the people who go through Chapter 13 are experiencing some kind of life trauma; they’ve lost a job, they’re getting a divorce, or they’re sick and they can’t work. So we see a lot of people who have been dealt a bad hand, and they want to pay everyone back. There’s a lot of reward in being involved in that process.”

West doesn’t have just her heart in her job; her head is in it, too. Instead of coming down hard on people who are seeking relief, she realizes there are practical reasons for working with them. “Society as a whole has said it’s better to let people pay back their debts with dignity and rebuild their lives rather than have mass poverty,” she says. “Mass poverty costs society more, not just in terms of human suffering but also indigent care.”

West grew up in Cleveland, Tenn., and stayed close to home for college, graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) with an accounting degree in 1999. She worked as a senior financial auditor at Arthur Andersen until the Enron scandal broke in 2002, then moved to Chicago and did internal auditing for an insurance company for a year. West had always wanted to go to law school, so when her aunt and uncle told her she could stay with them while she attended classes at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she jumped at the chance, even if she was a little leery of living with family.

“I was worried it would cramp my style, but I got to live with them and eat home-cooked meals,” West says. “When school was over, I didn’t want to move out.”

West clerked with Miller & Martin and Husch Blackwell while in law school, then returned to Chattanooga permanently in 2006 and went to work for the latter. Husch Blackwell wanted her to practice corporate and commercial law, which suited her fine. “I wanted to do insolvency,” she says. “I liked the idea of taking a mess and putting things in order.”

In 2009, West left Husch Blackwell to work as a financial coordinator at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, as she’d begun to envision herself being in-house somewhere, and working more on the business side than the legal side. The job was a poor fit for her, though, so after receiving counsel from Flossie Weill and Linda Norwood, West started practicing law again.

In time, West learned Still had an opening for a staff attorney. She interviewed for the position – but didn’t get the job. West will never forget how kind Still was while informing her of his decision. “He wrote me one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received,” she says. “He said he had a hard time choosing someone, and said he hoped I wouldn’t be discouraged. It put a huge smile on my face.”

West received the letter on a Wednesday. The next day, Still called her, said the other person wasn’t going to work out, and asked her if she’d still like to work for him.

West fell in love with her job immediately – and she loves her new job even more. “It’s a little bit of accounting and a little bit of law,” she says. “It’s a little bit of everything that appeals to me professionally.”

West can trace her humane perspective on her government job to the response of her family’s friends when her mom passed away when she was 12. “We had a strong support system through our neighbors and our church,” she says. “We were helped by people who cared about us, which is part of why I enjoy this job. I feel like I can give some of that back.”

West gives back in other ways as well. Through the Federal Bar Association, she became a mentor to a Howard High student at the end of the girl’s senior year. Although the young lady is now going to college in Memphis, West stays in touch with her, and they spend time together once a month. West is also a board member of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga. Professionally, West is serving as the treasurer of The Justices Brock-Cooper American Inns of Court.

If there’s one thing West didn’t inherit from Still, it was his masculine sense of décor. While she’s still decorating, comfy off white couches border her desk, abstract art hangs on one wall, and orchids spruce up a credenza near her office door. West has placed a variety of picture frames throughout her office as well, although most of them still contain the placeholder photo that was in them when she bought them.

Pictures of two very real individuals – West’s nieces – reside on her desk. Each girl occupies a special place in her heart as well, and West gives them as much attention as her only sibling, a sister, allows. “I recently took one of my nieces to Chicago,” she says, referring to the older one, who’s 15. The younger one stays with West for a week in the summer – and comes to work with her. “I set her up at a desk,” she says. “She likes to pump out product. She’s very business oriented.”

The young lady likely inherited that trait from her aunt, who spends weekdays pumping out a considerable amount of work. West does value her free time, though, which she spends binge watching TV, going to the movies, and planning mini-vacations with her husband, Matt Will, and their dog, Mr. Moustache. The threesome lives in Brainerd, where Will does most of the cooking. “He’s a fabulous cook, and I’m a fabulous eater,” West says, smiling.

West does have a lot on her plate – and not the one her husband gives her when he’s done cooking. But she not only loves her job as Chapter 13 trustee, she’s also struck a balance that gives her time to recharge. It’s a good plan, and it appears to be working, despite the weight of 11,000 cases on her shoulders. Between that and her “incredible staff,” it’s no wonder West looks like she just stepped out of a day spa.