“What is a debt collection law firm?” was more than a rhetorical question in the early proceedings at the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys’ (NARCA) Legal Symposium Tuesday at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

The first panel, entitled “Overview of a Collection Law Practice,” sought to define how debt collection law firms are structured and what they do on a day to day basis.

The panelists, mostly active practicing collection attorneys, provided a walkthrough of their job. Part of the job, according to Mike Buckles, is “owing” the collection branch of law. Buckles, a past-president of NARCA, said that he doesn’t accept “lawyer jokes,” much less others thinking less of him for practicing collection law.

Hillary Veldhuis, partner at Lyons, Doughty, & Veldhuis, noted that treating consumers with dignity is very important to collection attorneys, perhaps even more so than for collection agencies. Law firms, she explained, are more closely tied to clients, so a favorable experience in the recovery process can mean more to the client in the form of repeat business. “It’s a better business practice to build public trust,” she said.

Written policies are extremely important to law firms, panel moderator Adam Olshan, partner at the Law Offices of Howard Lee Schiff, noted. Attorneys and front line collectors need to know exactly what the company policies are.

Stevan Goldman, founder of YouveGotClaims, described how important technology is in the updating of policies and other operations of a collection law firm. He also noted that new technology processes, like planned destruction of data and front line monitoring, are becoming increasingly important. But he also conceded that the current environment is leading to soaring technology spending requirements for collection law firms.

“Court costs and litigation are expensive,” said Brent Yarborough of Zarzaur & Schwartz. His firm actively tries to stay out of court to keep costs down, including accepting settlements and payment plans and offering a formal hardship program for consumers. Above all, he noted, communication is key.

The panel directly addressed the report last week from the National Consumer Law Center on post-judgment practices in the ARM legal channel.

Jerry Myers, with Smith Debnam, said that there is a perception that once a judgment is won, “the discussion is over” with the consumer. He said this could not be further from the truth. In many cases, the notice of judgment is the first communication a consumer will respond to. That’s when a law firm can work with a consumer long before wages are garnished. “Voluntary measures are always better than involuntary ones,” he said.

Olshan shifted the conversation to why creditors might want to contract with a collection law firm. Richard Kamerman, former head of the attorney network for Ford Credit, said, “An attorney provides a certain level of professionalism.” Kamerman also loved the advice he often got from his law firm vendors. He said that the best way national creditors can protect their brand is to hire a collection law firm.

Bob Markoff, partner of Markoff Law, described the client onboarding process. He noted that his firm does turn down clients when it appears that they have not kept good records. “We need to make sure anything that leaves our office with our name on it is correct,” he said.

Christopher Willis, a compliance attorney at Ballard Spahr, noted how important it is for collection attorneys to comply in the current environment. Between federal and state laws, the CFPB, FTC, FCC, and even some local statutes, the regulatory landscape is a minefield. Record-keeping is one of the most important things a law firm can do to protect itself. In fact, he noted that collection law firms are some of the most audited businesses in the country.

The conference, which will feature three more panels, is being livestreamed at http://www.narca.org/?page=LiveStream