Bar Exams, Law Schools, Legal Ethics, Student Loans

Character & Fitness Fail for Graduate With ‘No Plan’ To Pay Off His Debts

Well, how much debt do you have?

Wow. Guy goes to law school, guy racks up a huge amount of debt, guy has no idea how he’ll pay off his debts. Sound familiar? Okay, here’s the twist: the guy failed the “character and fitness” component of the Ohio bar because he has no plan to pay off his loans.

What the hell kind of legal education system are we running where we charge people more than they can afford to get a legal education, and then prevent them from being lawyers because they can’t pay off their debts?

Because it’s not like Hassan Jonathan Griffin was in a particularly unique situation when he went before the Ohio bar. A year and a half ago, we wrote about a man who was dinged on his character and fitness review because he was $400,000 in debt. That’s an extraordinary case. Hassan Jonathan Griffin owes around $170,000. He has a part-time job as a public defender. He used to be a stockbroker. He’s got as much a chance of figuring out a way to pay off his loans as most people from the Lost Generation.

If Griffin can’t pass C&F, Ohio might as well say that half of the recent graduates in the state don’t have the “character and fitness” to be a lawyer…

Here’s how the Ohio Supreme Court, in its per curiam opinion reviewing the recommendation of the Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness, summarizes the career choices of Hassan Jonathan Griffin:

{¶ 4} [A three-member panel of the Board] found that the applicant had graduated from Arizona State University in 2004 at the age of 34 and had attended The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. When he graduated from law school in 2008, he owed approximately $170,000 in student loans – $20,000 for his undergraduate studies and $150,000 for law school. He also had incurred approximately $16,500 in credit-card debt.

{¶ 5} Before attending law school, the applicant had worked full-time as a stockbroker for approximately five-and-a-half years, earning enough money to meet his expenses. Since completing his first year of law school, however, respondent has worked part-time, 24 to 32 hours a week, at the Franklin County Public Defender’s Office, earning $12 per hour. Although the applicant lives with his nine-year-old daughter and her mother in the mother’s home and contributes minimally toward the household expenses, he has been unable to make any payments on his student loans, which began to come due in July 2009. He has also been unable to meet his credit-card obligations since approximately December 2008, and one creditor has obtained a default judgment against him.

At least he has a legal job. There are a lot of graduates carrying similar debt loads who cannot get a part-time job at the public defender’s office for $12 an hour.

So, how does actually getting a job lead to a C&F ding?

{¶ 6} The applicant has contemplated filing bankruptcy and has submitted a letter from his bankruptcy attorney dated January 29, 2010, advising of the applicant’s intent to file a voluntary petition under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. The applicant testified that during the pendency of the bankruptcy proceeding, the payments on his student loan obligation would be greatly reduced. This strategy would give him time to obtain full-time employment once he passes the bar and to get his financial affairs in order. The panel found, however, that as of the May 27, 2010 hearing date, the bankruptcy petition had not been filed. Moreover, the panel observed that the only debt that could be discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding would be the applicant’s $16,500 in consumer debt, as the applicant’s $170,000 in student loans are nondischargeable in bankruptcy. Noting that the applicant has no plan or ability to pay these debts, the panel recommended that his application be denied, but that he be permitted to reapply for the February 2011 bar examination.

What a mindjob. The Ohio bar is blaming this guy because his debts are non-dischargeable? That’s not Griffin’s fault. The Ohio bar is blaming him because he doesn’t have a plan? Please show me the 2007 graduate of Moritz College of Law who had a really solid plan for paying off $170K of debt. Denying Griffin admission, for a situation that is literally affecting thousands of people, is totally arbitrary and capricious.

Here’s what I think. What’s really going on here is that Ohio is saying, “Griffin could go back to being a stockbroker to pay off his debts, or he could get a better-paying legal job. Instead he seems content to be a public defender. C&F FAIL!”

Here’s the key line from later on in the Ohio court’s decision:

We accept the board’s findings of fact and conclude that the applicant has neglected his personal financial obligations by electing to maintain his part-time employment with the Public Defender’s Office in the hope that it will lead to a full-time position upon passage of the bar exam, rather than seeking full-time employment, which he acknowledges would give him a better opportunity to pay his obligations and possibly qualify him for an additional deferment of his student-loan obligation.

The problem is that the court, under the guise of enforcing a “character and fitness” requirement, has no right to tell Griffin what he should be doing with his life. This isn’t Soviet Russia. The court can’t just tell Griffin what kind of lawyer he has to be. Maybe he likes being a public defender. Maybe he gave up his career as a stockbroker specifically because he was stick of working in corporate America. MAYBE HE WANTS TO WORK PART TIME TO BE THERE FOR HIS DAUGHTER? Not all fathers believe that money is the most important contribution they can make to their lives of their children. I know a lot of people have trouble grasping the fact that some people would willingly quit a lucrative career to do something that pays significantly less, but trust me, it happens.

Where does the State of Ohio get off telling this guy what he can and cannot do with his career?

The fact that he owes money doesn’t give the Ohio bar the right to tell him what to do with his life. Even the IRS can’t force people to take on higher-paying work to pay back the government. The IRS can put you in prison for not paying your taxes, but they can’t force you to work. Hell, if I owed money to the Mafia, they’d beat me up and try to get me to engage in a “pump-and-dump” scheme. They wouldn’t say, “Look dude, time for you to go back to Debevoise and beg for your job back.” This isn’t “like” indentured servitude. The Ohio bar is literally suggesting that Griffin’s “character” hinges upon whether or not he will agree to be an indentured servant until his debts are repaid. If Griffin was giving hand-jobs at truck stops to bring in extra money, would the Ohio Bar think better about his character?

And, AND, if the Ohio Bar is so freaking concerned about Griffin’s career choices and his ability to pay for his legal education, then why don’t they try giving a s**t BEFORE the man signs up to go to law school in the first place? Why don’t they force Moritz to put up a warning on its website that reads: “WARNING: Inability to pay off our ridiculous tuition in the middle of a recession could result in a character and fitness failure.” The Ohio bar reminds me of those people who care more about what happens after people die than what happens while people are alive.

Griffin’s debt situation has nothing to do with his character. There’s nothing in the record that suggests Griffin could pay off his debts with his current income but is choosing not to. He’s not sitting around smoking a bong and playing Xbox instead of finding a job. All that’s happening is that this man has decided to use his legal skills to work in public service.

That’s a character flaw now?

In re Application of Griffin [Supreme Court of Ohio]

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

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