Debt bars would-be lawyer

In 26 years of college, graduate school, law school and bar exam prep, Robert Bowman amassed $400,000 in debt — including hefty penalties for never making a single payment. Now, after passing the New York bar exam on his fourth try, Bowman, 47,  has been denied a license to practice law, reports the New York Times.

In January, the committee of New York lawyers that reviews applications for admission to the bar interviewed Mr. Bowman, studied his history and the debt he had amassed, and called his persistence remarkable. It recommended his approval.

But 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.

It’s a weird story. Bowman was hurt badly in an accident as a young man, but did an injured leg really make it impossible to earn college credits — or money — for six years? Why did he go to England for an unnecessary master’s in law after completing his law degree? Why not work as a paralegal while trying to pass the bar exam? And, of course, how did he keep qualifying for loans without making a single payment?

At my daughter’s law school graduation, one graduate wheeled herself on stage in her chair, accompanied by her service dog. She’d earned her degree in three years, despite serious physical disabilities. I bet she pays her bills too.

If Bowman wins his appeal and gets his license to practice law, he may remain unemployed. Financial irresponsibility and a poor work record will make it hard to compete with all the other new lawyers out there, most of whom didn’t need four tries at the bar exam.

Normally, I’m a big fan of persistence. But not on my dime.

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    This NYT article illustrates the annoying he-said, she-said style of journalism that is all too common now. The journalist falls back on relating the claims of the two sides, without telling us the facts, facts that are in this case readily available. The article says “Mr. Bowman has documented his personal debt crisis with remarkable, obsessive intensity.” Great. So when Bowman says he got smacked twice by 25% fees from collection agencies and Sallie Mae disputes this, the journalist ought to take a look at the dossier Bowman has accumulated and let us know who’s telling the truth. How did the debt mount up from $230,000 to $400,000 in five years?

    Moreover, why wasn’t Bowman working during the time he was studying for the bar? Normally, students graduating from Hastings get jobs after graduation so they can start paying back their loans.

  2. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for him, given the fact that he’s clearly been irresponsible and made lousy choices, but why should that be a legal reason to deny him the ability to work in the field? He’s completed the training and passed the tests that are supposed to prepare a person to become a lawyer. Why should anyone have a right to tell him that he isn’t good enough to be a lawyer? That should be up to his potential clients to determine, not agents of government.

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    Forget about Mr. “I’ve never made a payment on my loans” Bowman. The real irresponsible party here is that bastard child of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Sallie Mae.

    The size of this account is extremely unusual, but not surprising given that the customer took out 32 loans to pursue undergraduate, law and masters of law studies and has not made a single monthly payment over his 26-year student loan history,” Ms. Holler said. “We are performing an extensive review of his extraordinary case, and if we identify any errors we will quickly rectify them.”

    How can Sallie Mae continue to give Mr. Bowman loan after loan when he has not repaid one cent of his previous loans?

  4. Nick B. says:

    David, “the fact that he’s clearly been irresponsible and made lousy choices” is plenty of reason to tell him that he can’t be an attorney. In spite of all the jokes and the well-publicized bad examples, attorneys in all states follow a strict code of ethics. Keeping people who are likely to perform poorly and do more harm than good for their clients out of the profession is, in my mind, a perfectly acceptable goal of a state bar association. (This is why many people who have non-trivial prior criminal backgrounds aren’t even admitted to law school, much less allowed to pass the bar.)

    Further, most character & fitness examiners worry (sensibly enough) that someone buried beneath such an enormous mountain of debt may well look out for their own financial interests over those of their client. It’s not a given that people would behave in that way – but they might.

    Basically: it’s possible that this guy may have gotten completely shafted. But it’s also possible that this guy is utterly irresponsible and should be kept out of a profession where he would hold people’s lives and livelihoods in his hands.

  5. thaprof says:

    I have lawyer relatives who worked paid summer internships in law firms while in school. They thought the money was horrible, but felt better when they discovered that a 12-week internship paid as much as a 9-month TA job.

  6. Substitute the word “teacher” for lawyer and I bet there’d be a whole different headline and discussion.

  7. This is absurdity. I have around $100k in combined undergrad and law school debt: most of it, the Stafford loans, is in forbearance, accruing interest but not presently requiring repayment, since I’m a poor state employee (for the moment). I worked with my private creditors to do partial payments. One of my private loans went into default and my wages were garnished (just finished paying that off). But all I had to do was what I could in good faith: lenders want to work with borrowers and get something rather than nothing.

    The court got it completely right. If this entitled sleazoid admits never once making a payment on his loans, then he borrowed them with fraudulent intent from the outset. It’s his burden to prove he’s fit to practice law, and he fails miserably. This is someone we’re supposed to believe can be trusted not to rob his own clients blind? That’s what attorneys most often get disbarred for, so spare the public the necessity of doing it after the fact.