Thursday, July 02, 2009

The High Cost of Debt

I found Betsy's blog post earlier today on the new rules for student loans to be particularly timely given an article in the New York Times about one would-be lawyer in New York State who has been barred from practicing law because of an unusually large amount of student debt and penalties--over $400,000. The subject of the article, Robert Bowman, has had a string of bad luck, to say the least. He was in foster care as a child, survived a devastating accident after which he spent nearly six years in rehabilitation, and then had another accident while swimming. Nonetheless, he graduated from college and law school and earned an LL.M. He passed the New York State bar exam on the fourth try, and the Character and Fitness Committee, which "interviewed Mr. Bowman, studied his history and the debt he had amassed, and called his persistence remarkable," ultimately "recommended his approval." Despite this positive recommendation, "a group of five state appellate judges decided this spring that his student loans were too big and his efforts to repay them too meager for him to be a lawyer."

The Times points out that "New York's courts have overlooked misconduct like lawyers' solicitation of minors for sex, efforts to deceive judges and possession of cocaine," offenses that "have led merely to temporary suspensions from practice." The article quotes Professor Deborah L. Rhode, an expert on legal ethics. According to Professor Rhode, "'It usually takes a pretty significant record of some underlying misconduct to keep you out permanently' ... Excluding someone for having too much debt was odd, she said; the hard questions about loans usually involve applicants who have used bankruptcy to try to escape loans, she said, and Mr. Bowman has not." Unfortunately, Mr. Bowman has never repaid any of his debt, which seems to be the sticking point for the judges who denied him entry to the bar. He vows to fight to become a lawyer, however, and is planning a lawsuit against his lender. Mr. Bowman's situation is troubling given the number of law students who are graduating today having amassed large amounts of debt.

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