Under Analysis- Character and unfitness: the harsh reality of debt

  By: Michelle St. Germain

Failing to face one’s financial debts used to be punishable by jail or public humiliation. The origin of the word “bankruptcy” is a reference to the medieval practice of breaking the bench of a delinquent merchant.  Even though bankruptcy laws have changed a lot since then, the humiliation of financial hardship has not changed much.  Cruel as it may seem, people judge others by their ability or inability to handle money.  Your ability to handle money is even important in getting a job – and not just in the financial industry. Employers in all kinds of different industries screen potential employees’ credit reports during the application process.  
  It is clear that how you handle your personal finances means a lot to people, including the people who decide whether or not you are fit to be a lawyer.  The character and fitness evaluation of many state bar associations consider “financial irresponsibility” when deciding to approve a bar applicant.  And here I thought you just had to be smart enough and wanted to “help people.”
  I would be the first to admit that going to law school for the sole reason to “help people” is a darling thing to say, but naive for a few reasons.  Law school costs a lot of money, so a prospective student needs to consider that reality, as well.  A recent New York Times article made an inquiry as to whether the investment in law school, generally speaking, is sensible for students.     The controversial article raised compelling points of view from unemployed law graduates saddled with an unbearable amount of non-dischargeable student loans debt.  It is clear that wanting to “help people” is not enough to carry you through law school and post-graduation. The reality is that law school costs money, and even if you want to help people, you need make money at it.
  The Ohio bar questioned whether a bar applicant, Hassan Jonathan Griffin, had the requisite financial responsibility to hold an Ohio bar license.  At the time of the Ohio bar’s character and fitness investigation, Griffin had $16,500 in consumer debt and $170,000 in student loan debt (nearly 90% of that was law school debt).  Griffin had attempted to pass the Ohio bar exam three times, and was preparing to take it once more.  In the meantime, Griffin had defaulted on his student loans and was contemplating bankruptcy.   Griffin was working part-time for the Ohio public defender, earning $12 an hour, and was hoping to become full-time once he had his bar license.   The Ohio bar didn’t think much of this plan.  It chastised Griffin for remaining in a part-time position instead of having full-time employment. Then, it denied his bar application.
  In related news, the Ohio bar remains unaware of the meaning of “Catch-22.”  For the rest of us, it’s easy to imagine the difficulty for law students to procure full-time employment in the legal field without having a bar license.  For a law graduate, a part-time job with the public defender is more attractive than a job as a full-time cashier at Wal-Mart.  Unfortunately, the Ohio bar’s decision may have a negative effect on the number of public defender applications from law students in Ohio.
  Rather than turn a cold shoulder on students that seek public service jobs, schools and states can reward this kind of plan by providing grants to help public interest lawyers pay off their loans.  Griffin attended Mortiz law school in Ohio, and judging by the tuition and costs to attend the school, Griffin’s law school debt was well within the expected range.  When a state bar deems law school loans financially irresponsible, the state bar is saying, “It’s financially irresponsible to go to law school.” 
Law school may have once seemed the golden ticket--a noble endeavor, even--to a certain career for uncertain liberal arts majors in a shaky economy. Instead, it is necessary for prospective law students to consider the cost of law school and their plans upon graduation.  It is also necessary that prospective law students understand that attending law school is not the panacea for financial ills, and in fact, the reality is that more and more students are struggling to obtain jobs upon graduation. 
There is a lesson here.  Think about what you’re going to do upon graduation, and weigh whether the debt of law school is worth it.  These considerations need to be weighed before applying to law school.  They need to be weighed again during law school. 
  Unfortunately, the teaching opportunity for this lesson is definitely not after graduation.  It makes me wonder what the Ohio bar would have thought if Griffin’s plan was to handle his law school debt by failing to pass the Character and Fitness investigation.  That sounds like a much worse plan than by going into public service.  Griffin is certainly less able to take care of his debt without a law license.  Public service jobs in Ohio are looking very unattractive after this decision.  The Ohio bar is responsible for enhancing and upholding the legal profession with its choices. Who is the irresponsible one now?

© 2010 under analysis LLC.    Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. You may send comments or criticisms to the Levison Group c/o this newspaper or direct via email to comments@levisongroup.com

 

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