While many law school graduates are all too aware of their accumulating pile of debt, few may realize it can prevent them from practicing law and kill any hopes of paying down their loans.
Just ask recent law grad Hassan Jonathan Griffin. The highest court in Ohio denied his bar application because he didn't have a plan to pay back $170,000 in school debt.
The Ohio Supreme Court on January 11 said Griffin lacked a "feasible plan to satisfy his financial obligations." Griffin's debts include $150,000 from law school, $20,000 from his undergraduate studies and $16,500 in credit card debt.
The state's Supreme Court, which regulates admission to the practice of law in Ohio, requires that an applicant be at least 21 years old, have a bachelor's degree and law degree, and pass the Ohio bar examination.
But the state's rules specify that prior to taking the bar exam, applicants must demonstrate they possess "the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications for admission to the practice of law."
Griffin, 40, applied in November 2009 for the February 2010 bar exam, but his mounting financial obligations led to an investigation by the state's Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness.
According to the board's report, Griffin graduated from Arizona State University in 2004 when he was 34 and worked full-time as a stockbroker for over five years before attending The Ohio State University Mortiz College of Law.
Since completing his first year of law school, Griffin has worked 24 to 32 hours a week at the Franklin County Public Defender's Office. Though he graduated from law school in 2008, he has been unable to obtain a full-time job and still earns $12 per hour at the public defender's office.
The board recommended that the court reject Griffin but permit him to reapply for the February 2011 bar exam. Griffin confirmed he is re-applying for the February exam and his attorney said his financial matters are now in better order.
"He has taken some positive steps to address the concerns in that opinion," said Robert Beck, an attorney with Brehm & Associates who is representing Griffin pro-bono.
Beck said he is concerned about public attention from the blogosphere toward his client's case. Beck said Griffin wants to avoid the limelight on himself in order to pursue a career in public service law.
"His parents were both active in civil rights, and so he wants to work in the public defender's office," said Beck. "The work he wants to do is hard work."
"Every member of Brehm & Associates is either a former public defender or a former member of legal aid, and we applaud Jon's desire to represent those in need," wrote Eric Brehm, principal of the law firm representing Griffin. "Jon Griffin does not desire litigation or controversy. [He] merely wants to take the Ohio Bar Examination and serve as an assistant public defender."
"The decision strikes me as strange because that kind of debt is not out of the realm of possibility for a law student," said Hannah Yu, a lawyer in Sacramento, Calif. "This cannot be the first person they encountered with that much debt."
Joseph Tsai, co-creator of the website LawRiot.com, said he found the decision "really disheartening."