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Bar application denied for inability to pay law school debt

Brett Clark//January 26, 2011//

Bar application denied for inability to pay law school debt

Brett Clark//January 26, 2011//

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By Brett Clark

In the wake of the substantial discussion in the legal community over the excessive number of law graduates and the shrinking number of jobs in the market, the Ohio Supreme Court rendered an opinion that adds insult to injury, disapproving a bar applicant’s character and fitness due to his “lack of a feasible plan to satisfy his financial obligations.”

The applicant, Hassan Jonathan Griffin, had incurred $170,000 in student loans (almost all of it for law school) and $16,500 in credit-card debt.  Before law school, he worked as a stockbroker and apparently made enough to cover his expenses.  Since his second year of law school, he has worked part-time at a public defender’s office earning $12 per hour.  He has therefore been unable to make payments on his student loans or meet his obligations on his credit card debt.  Given his financial situation, Griffin apparently considered bankruptcy, which would discharge his credit card debt but leave his $170,000 in education loans, which are nondischargeable debts.

The Ohio Bar found and the Ohio Supreme Court agreed that Griffin’s lack of a plan or ability to pay his debts is grounds for denial of his application due to lack of character and fitness.

So let’s recap:

Law schools inflate their graduate employment data and thereby paint a false picture of post-law school job prospects.  Students then graduate with a couple hundred thousand dollars of debt to find that there is little prospect of finding meaningful legal employment.  Now, to throw a bit of salt in the wound, if a law graduate is unable to find a legal job with pay sufficient to cover said debt, his bar application can be denied on character and fitness grounds.

The Ohio Supreme Court apparently has no appreciation for the rancid state of the legal job market.  It actually faults Griffin for holding onto 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.”  But if public defender work is what Griffin actually wants to do with his life (recall that he was previously a successful stockbroker), then what grounds does the Ohio Supreme Court have to claim that he has an ethical obligation to go find some other kind of legal work?  Nevermind that finding full time employment is exceedingly difficult in today’s climate, especially without a license.  As the opinion notes, Griffin had taken the bar exam unsuccessfully three times.  His best prospects of landing full time employment upon successful passage are probably with the public defender officer that he’s been working with for the last four years.

Griffin’s inability to pay down his debts is not an issue of his character or fitness as a member of the bar.  The Ohio Supreme Court’s determination in this matter is not only incorrect and inconsiderate of the facts before it, but comes at the worst possible time for applicants to the state’s bar.

Via ABA Journal.

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