The new law lets smaller companies use bankruptcy to clear their debts and reorganize faster and more cheaply than previously. Last month, Congress boosted the number of businesses eligible for the program by making it available to any company with less than $7.5 million in debt.

The new lawyers aren’t government employees, but instead will be appointed to act as mediators and advisers in small-business cases. White pre-selected them from among 3,000 applicants, picking those with some accounting and general business backgrounds to give courts a pool of experts to draw from.

Consumers and small business owners have seen the most dramatic change in the bankruptcy system so far. That’s because in normal times, U.S. Trustee attorneys preside over thousands of meetings a month between debtors and creditors. These so-called 341 meetings, named after a section of the bankruptcy code, are the only time a creditor can directly ask a debtor questions under oath. The answers are key evidence in every consumer and small business case.

Because of social-distancing requirements, 60,000 such meetings were canceled, White said. Future meetings will be held by telephone, which is why U.S. Trustee offices have added 1,200 new conference lines, according to an agency statement.

‘Pivotal Step’

“It’s a pivotal step particularly for consumers,” White said. The U.S. Trustee has probably sent 1 million notices to people about the cancellations, he said.

The changes have been more subtle in big corporate cases, which generate almost all the headlines but were a tiny fraction of the 757,000 bankruptcies filed last year.

At the start of the pandemic, judges in the three main corporate bankruptcy venues -- Delaware, New York and Texas -- switched to video for most routine court hearings and in some cases canceled more complicated proceedings. In Wilmington, Delaware, where Sontchi is chief judge, lawyers were told to wait until May if a dispute wasn’t time-sensitive.

Retail cases like, Pier 1 Imports and Modell’s Sporting Goods, were put on hold because they involved liquidation sales that can’t be held when stores are under orders to stay closed.

“It is hard,” Sontchi said. “If it’s important, if it’s urgent, we’re hearing it.”