Puzzle: a question, problem, or contrivance designed for testing ingenuity. (Merriam-Webster)
While most people associate puzzles with jigsaws or crosswords, for Margaret Howard nothing beats the intricacies of the Bankruptcy Code.
It did not start out that way. When she began graduate school at Washington University it was to become a social worker. Her particular interest was the problems of those who receive government benefits. Realizing there were important laws she needed to understand, Howard enrolled in two law courses, family law and welfare law. Although “in a lot of the classes I didn’t understand anything that was being said,” Howard says now, “both courses reached out and grabbed me…. I’d never run into anything more interesting.”
Three years later, Howard graduated with a J.D. and a Masters in Social Work. She began practicing law at Lewis and Rice, a general corporate firm, in St. Louis. There she found complex, intricate problems to work through, but “I was always frustrated because some of the issues I was given were absolutely fascinating . . .. and I couldn’t take the time to play around with them.”
When a teaching position opened up at St. Louis University School of Law, she took it.
Her initial scholarly interests were welfare and family law, but that began to change when a colleague asked her to teach a commercial law course as a favor. It was a lot of work. “I was struggling every night to stay ahead of the students, the next day, and one or two times…we got right to last line of the case book I had read. But I loved the material.”
Professor Howard’s academic evolution continued as she moved from St. Louis University to Vanderbilt University. Intellectually, she became drawn to bankruptcy. “It’s got this wonderful, hard, long statute . . . yet seriously important, very vital questions are not addressed [by the statute]. It has case law, legislative history, constitutional questions, and a rich history dating back to Roman time . . . It deals with problems that are universal.”
A career highlight occurred in 1992. After working for over a year on a legal question coinciding with a case pending in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, she was appalled when the Court handed down a decision in Dewsnup v. Timm that was strongly for the other side. “I sat down and wrote a forty page law review article in a week. I tried as hard as I could to pick Dewsnup apart, not leaving even a greasy spot on the floor.” This heartfelt, yet scholarly tour de force established her as a leading voice in the bankruptcy academy.
Following a semester long visit to Washington and Lee, Professor Howard accepted a full-time job offer and moved to Lexington in 2001. Since then she has taught Bankruptcy, Secured Transactions, Contracts and Legal Writing; published Bankruptcy Overview: Issues, Law and Policy and Cases and Materials on Bankruptcy, and as the American Bankruptcy Institute’s Scholar in Residence in 2002. She also continues publishing law review articles, with a particular focus on the 2005 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. In her view, the 2005 amendments have made a few advances (such as clearer rules for coordinating international bankruptcies) but on the whole, “they did not accomplish what they tried to do and what they tried to do was misguided.”
Bankruptcy law is a long way from where she started, but it has proven a satisfying test for her ingenuity. Still, the way she views it, Margaret Howard is not all that far from her early aspirations to help those in need. “Bankruptcy is an area of law . . . that when it works right can truly be a lifeline.”