It sounds horrible, and it almost is.
A former student directs me to this article in the Minnesota Lawyer, Bar application denied for inability to pay law school debt, which in turn leads one to the Ohio Supreme Court opinion in In re Application of Griffin, Slip Opinion No. 2011-Ohio-20.
The facts are almost as stated in the hyperventilating article: The applicant failed the bar three times, and applied to take it a fourth time. He passed the character and fitness scrutiny of his local bar association (often a formality), but the Board of Commissioners of Character and Fitness overruled that decision. The Board said that the applicant’s financial circumstances called into question his fitness to be a lawyer.
What seems to have bothered the Board is not simply the applicant’s debt but his failure to deal with it responsibly. Mr. Griffin had a large but hardly unheard-of $170,000 in student loans, of which $150,000 was for law school. But he also had $16,500 in credit card debt, and that debt has been delinquent since 2008; one creditor even has obtained a default judgment against him. He was working part-time at the Public Defenders Office, at $12/hour, hoping to land a full-time job if he passed the bar. Meanwhile, the credit card debt wasn’t being paid, and the strategy he planned was to consider declaring bankruptcy even though that would only clear up the credit card debt and not the student loans, which are not discharged in bankruptcy. That said, he hadn’t actually pulled the trigger on the bankruptcy, so the debt was still hanging over him and presumably accruing penalties and interest.
The article spins all this as the court deciding that law school debt keeps the applicant from becoming a lawyer, or that his decision to work part time at legal aid (in hopes of a permanent post after passing the bar) instead of getting a better paying, maybe non-legal, job, is the source of the adverse decision. How terrible to count this public-spiritedness against him!
Not so fast. The guy defaulted on the credit card debt two or more years ago. He didn’t work things out with the bank; he let one bank get a judgment against him. Lawyers quite often get into trouble by mishandling client funds either through inattention or through over-optimism that if they just borrow a bit from the client fund to tide them over, they can put it all back next week…. So while I don’t see this result as compelled, I can’t say the court is wrong to treat the credit card debt issue as a red flag. (The three bar failures don’t speak all that well for his organization either. Anyone can fail the bar once. Twice is bad.)
And note too that the Ohio Supreme Court doesn’t say Mr. Griffin can never attempt the Ohio bar again. They basically tell him to go clean up his affairs and then get back to them. That’s pretty mild.
Yes, passing the bar and getting a full time job as a lawyer would be one way to do that, and this decision blocks that option, so there is a Catch-22 element to the court’s offer. But I still don’t think it is unreasonable under the circumstances. Despite the Minnesota Lawyer’s take on the story.