Are high student loans equal to unfitness to be a lawyer?

In the case of Robert Bowman, New York judges overruled the Bar’s entrance committee. He lacks the requisite character and fitness to be a lawyer, according to the judges, because of his extensive student loans accumulated over 26 years of study. He will not be granted the license to practice law.

Because of a very tough youth and at least two major accidents that required extensive rehabilitation, his education was extended … and during that time, Mr. Bowman accumulated somewhere between $270,000 and $400,000 in student loans. He admits to not paying any of it back … yet.  He needs a job to do so. He’s passed the bar and been deemed to be morally fit and of good character by the entrance committee.  Oh, yes, except for the student loans he’s not repaid or even paid down. (A side question might be, who made such loans, and why? But, I digress.)

As with a number of our politicians of recent note, I find it both interesting and disturbing when small-minded (yes, I know, this is a moral characterization) people sit in judgment on others on issues of this nature. Mr. Bowman apparently faced incredible physical odds in his life, not of his own making, and overcame them. But, in the process, he needed financial help.

I guess it was just bad timing for Mr. Bowman. Because had he accumulated this debt after he were licensed, and then went into bankruptcy, there would be nothing said about his character fitness. Before today, I had not experienced lawyers going into bankruptcy. Today, that is no longer an uncommon occurrence.  In fact, bankruptcy is an approved strategy to avoid debt payment, used by a number of large law firms, including the Heller Ehrmann firm recently … to avoid payment of the firm’s lease obligations … and therefore protecting the financial interests of their equity partners who might otherwise be exposed to collection efforts. I have difficulty understanding why the lawyers of Heller are morally fit to practice law, owing millions of dollars, and Mr. Bowman is unfit because of a few hundred thousand dollars.

Oh, and how about some of the lawyers in our community who give the profession a bad name by virtue of the way they practice, and the scams they pull on their clients … and theft from client trust accounts that result in slaps on the hand or temporary suspensions?  No, that seems to be o.k., but somehow, Mr. Bowman’s case is different.

Perhaps moral integrity and character fitness should be grounds at least every five years for investigating every lawyer who renews his/her license. After all, don’t we do that when we renew our driver’s license?




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