The word “bankruptcy” might fill the average person with dread, but a bankruptcy lawyer knows it’s just another word for a particular brand of problem solving. On May 22nd, nearly 1100 restructuring professionals gathered at UJA-Federation of New York’s luncheon at the Hilton New York to honor D.J. (Jan) Baker, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP, and hear from guest speaker Kevyn Orr, emergency manager for the city of Detroit.

From left to right: D.J. (Jan) Baker and Kevyn Orr at UJA-Federation's annual Bankruptcy Luncheon. Photo: Chloe Apple Seldman/Michael Priest Photography

The event, organized by the Bankruptcy and Reorganization Group of UJA-Federation of New York’s Lawyers Division, raised $1.3 million to support UJA-Federation’s work.

The award that Baker received was named after Professor Lawrence P. King, who taught at New York University for more than 40 years and was a nationally recognized expert on bankruptcy. When he accepted the award, Baker quoted from the last speech King gave before he died, in which King emphasized the importance for his fellow lawyers to give back. “You’ll get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people,” Baker quoted King as saying.

“All of us here today have been incredibly fortunate in so many ways that it behooves us to remember the importance of giving something back,” Baker continued. He saw firsthand where the funds raised by the event were going when he recently had the chance to visit the New York Legal Assistance Group, a UJA-Federation beneficiary agency.

“It provides legal services every year to tens of thousands of New Yorkers on matters ranging from [Hurricane] Sandy, immigration relief, consumer protection …. It was a wonderful opportunity to see what the small seed planted 20 years ago by UJA-Federation has grown into today; I have to tell you Larry King would have loved it.”

Kevyn Orr also spoke about giving back as he explained the problems he faced in his new job trying to save Detroit from bankruptcy.

From left to right: Albert Togut, vice chair of the bankruptcy group, Marcia L. Goldstein, chair of the bankruptcy group, honoree D.J. (Jan Baker), Bankruptcy Chief Judge Cecelia Morris, and Harold S. Novikoff, chair of the bankruptcy group. Photo: Chloe Apple Seldman/Michael Priest Photography

“If you think about it, so many times America’s problems have been deposited on the steps of the bankruptcy court,” said Albert Togut, vice chair of the Bankruptcy and Reorganization Group, while introducing Orr. He cited the Great Depression and its aftermath, the tech bubble, and the 2008 recession as examples. “So it makes perfect sense that when this country doesn’t know what to do, it calls upon a bankruptcy lawyer to be ‘Mr. Fix-It.’”

Orr was brought in by Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, to oversee the city of Detroit’s financial operations and tackle its staggering debt. He said he underestimated the scope of the Detroit’s problems. It’s not just a question of setting the city’s balance sheets right, he explained.

“We can’t liquidate or sell off Detroit like many of us do when we go into our representations [for clients.] We can’t abandon the children and the people of Detroit, some of whom bravely still stay there and fight for their city,” Orr said. “This isn’t a traditional reorganization for a profit-making enterprise, this is the saving of a great American city.”

Orr compared his feeling of being called to action to take on the job of helping Detroit with the call to action in Judaism. “When I was asked to come here, I went on the website and reviewed UJA-Federation’s mission statement. What was reflected today in the presentation of the good works that the organization does so much of is truly a mitzvah.”