We get this question a lot because people borrowing money for their businesses usually have to offer personal guarantees. Then if the loan goes sour, someone sues the owner and the business.
Suing Your Corporation
This issue does not normally arise where the business is either a sole proprietorship or a partnership, because these entities are not treated as “separate persons” in the law. When you’re sued as a partnership or sole proprietorship, you’re just being sued individually.
If you own a corporation, on the other hand, it is a separate person, and only lawyers can represent other persons. That means you can defend yourself, but not the corporation. What should you do? This depends on what you can afford and what is at stake.
If the corporation has assets and is valuable, you probably need to protect it. That means hiring a lawyer to represent it. If you don’t, the debt collector will get a judgment against it by default, and such a judgment could be or become a major nuisance.
Corporation Not Valuable
If the corporation is not particularly valuable and is not going anywhere, you could consider dissolving it if there’s a judgment, so that is less important. The debt collector may try to prove that the corporation is too “thinly capitalized” and is, therefore, just an “alter ego” for you, however. That is something you should take seriously, and again it would suggest hiring a lawyer – at least for advice on what to do about it.
Proving thin capitalization is much more lawyering than most debt collectors are prepared to do, however. They like to use premade forms to establish cases against people who do not defend themselves. Getting the facts to prove thin capitalization is uneconomic for most debt collectors, although of course this doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in an individual case. Normally it won’t present much risk.
Hiring a Lawyer
If you hire a lawyer to defend the corporation, it is likely that the lawyer could also represent you personally. If you make that choice, which is wise if you have a lawyer well-versed in collection law, then you will simply be putting your fate in the hands of the lawyer. The problem is that most lawyers are NOT well-versed in debt defense, and there is a new financial variable as well, namely that the lawyer must charge for his or her services and recommend a “reasonable” course of action. That likely will lead to a settlement that might not be in your favor.
The Advantages of Self-Representation
The alternative is to let the lawyer represent the corporation while you represent yourself. This leaves you in the case as an involved litigant. As a practical matter, the case against you and the corporation are pretty much identical, and work on one will be work for both. Not all lawyers would willingly be involved in that scenario, but if yours is, you may get the best of both worlds. That is, you can let the lawyer spend “reasonable” amounts of time defending while you spend “unreasonable” amounts of time defending. Or, rather, since the lawyer is charging you $100 per hour or more, if you can work for less than that, time spent could be reasonable for you while unreasonable for the lawyer.
In debt law, unlike most other types of law, self-representation can make very good sense. You will not have the same bias towards settlement the lawyer has, and you will be free to spend more time on the case. This informs your judgment as to the law yet also makes your defense much tougher. We do believe that the risk of inadequate defense (by lawyers) is significant given the financial constraints, and suggest that your remaining knowledgeably involved could be very important.
Self-representation is annoying and time-consuming, and may not be financially efficient, but it would probably increase your chances of success, and there are intangible benefits of winning that are very significant.
Our materials will be of help to you in defending the legal issues involved in the collection. Our resources on legal research will help you with the other issues as well, but we have not addressed the specific issues of corporate law that could come up if your company is being sued. You will find the teleconferences helpful in many ways.