Bar Exams, Education / Schools, Job Searches, Legal Ethics, Money, Student Loans

$400,000 in Student Debt = Character & Fitness Fail

Crushing Debt Obligations.jpgThe New York Times has a fascinating story about Robert Bowman. Bowman took the bar exam four times and racked up $400,000 in student debt on his quest towards becoming an attorney, only to be denied admittance to the bar based on character and fitness. He sounds like a cross between Don Quixote and Jimmy Berluti.

He put himself through community college, worked and borrowed heavily to help pay for college, graduate school and even law school. He took the New York bar examination not once, not twice, not three times, but four, passing it last year. Finally, he seemed to be on his way.

In January, the committee of New York lawyers that reviews applications for admission to the bar interviewed Mr. Bowman, studied his history and the debt he had amassed, and called his persistence remarkable. It recommended his approval.

But a group of five state appellate judges decided this spring that his student loans were too big and his efforts to repay them too meager for him to be a lawyer.

The thing is, the appellate panel didn’t really explain why Bowman’s debt load made him unfit to be a lawyer:

“Applicant has not made any substantial payments on the loans,” the judges wrote in a terse decision and an unusual rejection of the committee’s recommendation. “Applicant has not presently established the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law.”

Mr. Bowman, 47, appears to have crossed some unspoken line with his $400,000 in student debt and penalties, accumulated over many years.

Is $400,000 simply too much debt for a lawyer to carry? More details after the jump.

Clearly Bowman wasn’t on top of his debt situation. But it doesn’t sound like Bowman was simply ignoring phone calls and trying to stay off the grid to avoid debt collectors. Instead, Bowman seems to have legitimate disagreements with his creditors:

He claims Sallie Mae overcharged him, imposing hefty and unjustified fees; did not allow him to defer payments when he was entitled to do so and improperly accounted for periods when he did defer.
According to his detailed records, a Sallie Mae representative even threatened him. “If you default, your license will be taken from you,” the representative said. “Do you understand that?”

Sallie Mae disagrees with Bowman’s story.
Whether you are a federal creditor, a private debt collector, or even a local organized crime boss, isn’t it a universal rule that people can’t pay you back if they are unable to earn money? I know that’s why my bookie (we’ll call him “HLS”) threatens my kneecaps and not my fingers. Bowman has racked up all of this debt in order to become an attorney; how does he have any chance of paying back the money if he is not allowed to become an attorney?

Mr. Bowman concedes that he has never made a payment on his loans, partly because of medical and other deferrals and problems with his lender. But he says he intends to make good, adding that his only hope is to begin practicing law — which means overturning the judges’ decision.

Does paying back your debts affect your fitness to be an attorney? Does Bowman’s lack of sound financial planning make him more prone to unethical behavior?
If so, it seems to me that we should apply this “leveraged = person of low moral character” analysis to more people than just Robert Bowman.
Finding Debt a Bigger Hurdle Than Bar Exam [New York Times]

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