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As a new law school graduate, Judge John E. Waites was inspired to pursue a career in bankruptcy law due to the Reform Act of 1978 increasing the demand for bankruptcy attorneys.
Waites graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1980. He then started working in a smaller practice, learning from Judge J. Bratton Davis, before moving on as the Estate Administrator of the Bankruptcy Court. He was appointed as Regional United States Trustee in 1987 which involved establishing eight new offices, hiring 80 staff members and meeting and appearing before all the bankruptcy judges in the region.
Waites then went on to become partner at Nexsen Pruet in Columbia. The unique opportunity of a third bankruptcy judge became available shortly after, inspiring him to pursue the career with the support of his colleagues. Now, after 28 years of service, Waites starts his retirement on June 26.
Judge Waites recently took time out of his busy schedule to reflect on his years of practice and offered advice to those who are starting their legal careers.
Question: What’s been the highlight of your career?
Judge Waites: The primary highlight has been the outstanding people with whom I have worked. I have had the great fortune to have worked with excellent judges and lawyers in the South Carolina Bankruptcy Bar who have also offered friendship and advice along the way. I have been truly blessed to have worked with 16 talented and dedicated law clerks and a top-notch bankruptcy clerk’s office, who have helped me do my job as a judge well enough to allow me to pursue other initiatives related to bankruptcy.
I have been most proud to have dedicated myself to establishing programs helpful to the representation of parties without a lawyer and to create programs that help promote justice in this state. I have had the high honor of serving on the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission from 2007-2020, remaining thereafter as a special advisor, as well as the SC Bar Pro Bono Board. I have been inspired by and partnered with the extraordinarily dedicated professionals at the South Carolina Bar, South Carolina Bar Foundation, SC Legal Services and SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center. With their help, we created bankruptcy court-based programs such as the debtor referral program to match a pro se filer with a lawyer, bankruptcy clinics, and an ask-a-lawyer program dedicated to bankruptcy issues.
Other highlights of my career include the founding of the South Carolina C.A.R.E. financial literacy program to provide financial education in schools, colleges and community organization and the founding of the J. Bratton Davis Bankruptcy American Inn of Court to encourage professionalism, civility and public service among bar members and mentoring new bankruptcy lawyers. These programs were particularly rewarding due to the bankruptcy bar’s enthusiastic support and participation.
I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to work to improve the bankruptcy system on a national level through service on the Bankruptcy Judges Advisory Group, which advises the director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts regarding issues affecting the bankruptcy courts and service as a member on the Judicial Conference Committee on the Administration of the Bankruptcy System, as an appointee of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the policy making body for the entire bankruptcy system. A pinnacle and most enjoyable experience was my participation in the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, the organization representing the 350 bankruptcy judges throughout the United States, for which I served as President in 2018-2019.
Finally, I am particularly proud and honored to have been selected as the recipient of the J. Bratton Davis Professionalism Award from the S.C. Bankruptcy Law Association, the Matthew J. Perry Civility Award from the Richland County Bar, and as a fellow in the American College of Bankruptcy.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is starting their judgeship?
- Always realize that the parties appearing in your court are likely facing one of their most difficult times in their lives—treat them with compassion and respect.
- Always try to be better prepared and knowledgeable than the lawyers that are arguing the cases before you but listen to them because there is always important information beyond the papers filed. Do your homework and keep up with national law changes and decisions.
- Maintain an attitude of partnership/friendship with the members of the bar. Seek their perspective and advice on how to make the court process better and more fair.
- Keep a journal that highlights the important events, lessons, and occasions to assist your growth and to look back on one day.
Q: Now that you’re retiring, what’s next for you?
Judge Waites: I am looking forward to a period of rest and spending more time with my family. At some point, I expect to return to the practice of law in pro bono cases, pro bono mediation, or in teaching and mentoring young lawyers.