Chief Judge Laurel Myerson Isicoff, J.D. ’82
United States Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge Laurel Myerson Isicoff, J.D. ’82, has one of the best jobs in the world. “I have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other people,” she said. “It is very gratifying to see the successful resolution of a complex case involving multiple creditors and debtors.”
Whether mentoring young lawyers or advising her clerks and interns, Isicoff makes it a point to discuss bankruptcy as a potential career path. “You can build so many different skills in this field,” she said. “You go to court and try cases. You also do a lot of negotiating in trying to put together a deal. Your cases might deal with federal or state law, and involve criminal matters as well. You never get bored.”
A Changing Field of Practice
On February 13, 2006, Isicoff joined the bankruptcy court, and in 2016 she became the first woman chief judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida. The court has seven sitting judges and one on recall who is available to litigants who can’t afford a mediator.
“We have seen a dramatic drop in bankruptcy filings in the Southern District of Florida in recent years,” Isicoff said. Nationally, bankruptcy filings fell by 1.8 percent for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2018, continuing a trend since 2011. There were 779,828 filings, compared with 794,492 cases in the previous year, according to statistics released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
But the Southern District is still above the national average of cases per judge, Isicoff added. In 2010, the court handled about 40,000 cases—almost 6,000 per judge—due to the impact of the nationwide recession, while the current caseload is about 4,000 per judge, she added.
At the same time, South Florida has seen an increase in cases involving assignment for the benefit of creditors, which are handled in state courts and can be less expensive for small and mid-size businesses, Isicoff said.
Following Her Grandfather’s Legal Path
Isicoff grew up in Manhattan, where her mother Paula Wayne was a star on Broadway. Her father, Robert Myerson, was also in the theater business as a stage manager and director. But her grandfather, Joseph Myerson, was a greater influence on her future career. He was an in-house counsel for CIT Group, a financial services company, who handled several noteworthy cases in the 1930s, and ‘40s, including the recovery of liens on two buses by the Pierce Arrow Sales Corporation. He also argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether CIT’s lien had to be recognized on a vehicle that was seized for being used in bootlegging.
“I worshiped my grandfather and decided I wanted to be a lawyer as well,” Isicoff said. At age 15, she moved with her family from New York to South Florida. Isicoff didn’t like the change of scene and graduated from high school a year early so she could return to the Northeast as a student at Barnard College in New York City.
While on a summer vacation in Florida, she met her future husband, Steven Isicoff, a native Floridian who is now a Miami businessman. During her senior year, she attended the University of Miami as a visiting student and spent many hours typing up the School of Law’s Slip Sheet newsletter to help pay her expenses.
Miami to Manhattan to Miami
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Isicoff took a year off before enrolling at New York University School of Law. “After my first year in law school, Steven asked me to marry him, so I moved back to Miami,” Isicoff said. “I was able to transfer to Miami Law and earn my degree.” In law school, Isicoff took part in a variety of activities, including running the mock trial competition in her third year.
Through the years, Isicoff has stayed in close touch with Miami Law, along with other members of her family. Her brother-in-law Eric Isicoff, J.D. ’83, is a commercial litigator and a founding partner of Isicoff Ragatz, and her sister-in-law, Tammy Fox-Isicoff, J.D., ’83, is an immigration attorney and partner at Rifkin & Fox-Isicoff in Miami. Her nephew Jordan Isicoff, J.D. ’17, is an attorney with Hall, Lamb, Hall & Leto, P.A.
Isicoff and her husband have two surviving children, Alison, a pediatric occupational therapist, and Daniel, who works in the family business. Their son Joseph was killed in a car accident 14 years ago, and his uncle Eric endowed a UM scholarship in his name.
Clerking and Private Practice After Law School
After graduating from law school in 1982, Isicoff clerked for the Honorable Daniel S. Pearson at the Florida Third District Court of Appeal for two years before entering private practice in the Miami office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, now known as Squire Patton Boggs.
“At that time, there were only two associates in the firm’s small Miami office, including my friend Sandra Barker,” Isicoff said. When Barker left the firm, she handed Isicoff a bankruptcy case that was being managed by one of the firm’s partners in Cleveland. “Sandy told me that everyone wants to be a commercial litigator, but focusing my practice on bankruptcy could take me a long way,” Isicoff said. “That was good advice, and helped me stay focused on this field.”
After eight years with Squire Sanders, Isicoff joined Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, where she continued to develop her skills in commercial bankruptcy. Isicoff spent 14 years with KTT, developing a specialty in U.S. Securities and Exchange receiverships involving Ponzi schemes, such as the Premium Sales bankruptcy case in the 1990s. “We adopted some creative strategies to coordinate the distribution of funds to victims of this Ponzi scheme,” she said.
Isicoff also handled a variety of foreclosures, workouts, including securitized loans for LNR Partners. She also served as local counsel for the creditor’s committee in the bankruptcy case of Polar Air and its affiliate, Atlas Air, negotiating with the company’s debtors. Other notable cases included working on the asset analysis and distribution proposal in the Mutual Benefits receivership, and the second Pan Am bankruptcy case in the early 2000s.
Whether in private practice or on the bench, Isicoff is committed to service to others. She formerly served as president of the Bankruptcy Bar Association of the Southern District of Florida, and chair of the BBA’s Pro Bono Task Force.
Currently, Isicoff is a member of the Pro Bono Committee of the American College of Bankruptcy, serves as judicial chair of the Pro Bono Committee of the Business Law Section of The Florida Bar, and is a member of The Florida Bar Standing Committee on Pro Bono.
“It’s always been very important for me to find a way to help people and companies in financial distress,” she said. “By contributing their pro bono time and skills, South Florida’s attorneys can make a big difference in our community.”