Ohio Supreme Court Denies Law License for Grad with $170,000 in Student Loans

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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."

Do Law School Loans Mean Bad Lawyering?

Other law graduates, many in the blogosphere, expressed surprise at the rejection.

"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."

"The key issue here is about whether the character of a person, based on their past finances, can wholly determine their ethical capacity to practice law," said Tsai. "We believe it does not."

While many law school grads are unemployed, it is apparently rare they fail the character and fitness test because of their personal finances.

In April 2009, the Texas Court of Appeals revoked the probationary law license of a man in Houston with undergraduate and law school loans of around $90,000 plus interest and $58,000 in "unsecured loans."

"We handle about 100 contested hearings a year, and very rarely is financial responsibility the subject of the hearing, and even more rarely is the situation where the board decides to deny" the license, the Texas Board of Law Examiners' executive director Julia E. Vaughan told The Texas Lawyer.

The New York state appellate court rejected the license application of Robert Bowman in April 2009, according to a story in the New York Times. A court subcommittee cited student debt of over $430,000 belonging to the University of California's Hastings law school graduate.

The Education Department recently decided that Bowman's debts will be recalculated and he is not in default, allowing him to re-apply for his license, according to theThe Chronicle of Higher Education in November. Bowman could not be reached for comment.

Fewer Jobs For Lawyers

Griffin and the others are apparently in good company and if high loan debt were to be a major factor for admission to state bars, few would be admitted.

The American Bar Association (ABA) reported that the average amount borrowed for law school was $91,506 for private schools and $59,324 for public schools in 2008. A committee from the ABA wrote in a report that these figures do not include debt from students' undergraduate years and an average law school student will graduate with debt "well in excess of $100,000."

The November 2009 report, "The Value Proposition of Attending Law School" stated that prior to the recession, starting salaries for associates at large firms were around $160,000 a year.

But among law graduates from the class of 2008, only 23 percent of students started with that salary level. About 42 percent of graduates had an annual salary of less than $65,000. And the ABA report said prospects are even bleaker now, with students competing for half as many jobs at top law firms.

"Far too many law students expect that earning a law degree will solve their financial problems for life," the ABA committee wrote. "In reality, however, attending law school can become a financial burden for law students who fail to consider carefully the financial implications of their decision."