In most states (or in West Virginia, at any rate) passing the bar exam does not guarantee you a ticket to practice law. Your "character" has to be signed off upon, which comes after an interview with a few bar members. In my chase, the interview took about five minutes and didn't give any cause for alarm.
I was a little surprised, however, when they asked about student loans. Did I have them? Yes, of course. I managed to make it out of undergrad without debt (thank you very much, Mom and Dad!), but even with a scholarship I rolled out of law school with a five-figure debt load. I knew it wasn't that much, comparatively, but I'm still paying it off even now.
So consider the story of Robert Bowman, who overcame a bunch of physical setbacks to get a law degree and pass the bar in New York. But the state bar won't sign off on his character:
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.You read that right. The precise number is actually more like $435,000, and climbing.
'Applicant has not made any substantial payments on the loans,' the judges wrote in a terse decision and an unusual rejection of the committee’s recommendation. 'Applicant has not presently established the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law.'
Mr. Bowman, 47, appears to have crossed some unspoken line with his $400,000 in student debt and penalties, accumulated over many years.
Putting aside Bowman's arguments that part of the large load is due to lender malfeasance, it seems to me that he's caught in a financial catch-22. One the one hand, he incurred this load of debt no doubt on the theory that his legal career would allow him to make the kind of money he'd need to pay it back. On the other hand, the New York bar now won't let him enter the practice - because he racked up too much debt on the way to them. There was certainly no guarantee he would graduate with a JD or pass the bar when he took out the loans, but surely he didn't consider that the fact of the loans themselves would be the problem. It seems perverse.
Having said that, I can see where the bar is coming from. One of the (many) benefits of my job is that we don't deal with client money. Nobody pays fees and we don't handle lawsuit proceeds or anything like that. From what I've seen in the past ten years, a great deal of bar disciplinary proceedings involve lawyers who have been lax, or worse, with client money. I suppose you could argue that someone with an excessive amount of debt would have a strong motive to skim some extra off the top.
I don't see that as a good reason to keep him out of the profession, though. Maybe under a close watch, but that should be sufficient.