Too Much Student Debt = Not Fit to Join the Bar?

To add to the list of things that can keep you from practicing law: taking on so much debt that you can't pay it back and get dinged by the bar committee.

Today's NYT has an astonishing story about a 47-year-old who started at Hastings Law School back in 2000, decided to throw in a master's degree, and then found himself trying to carry student loans of $230,000. By now, that amount has spiraled to $400,000 because of interest and penalties, during a time when he wasn't able to practice law yet because he had some difficulty passing the bar exam (he had to take it three times).

He concedes that he hasn't made a single payment on his loans, and he now finds himself in trouble applying to the state bar:

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.

"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.

I don't mean to pile on. The article makes clear that the borrower had some extenuating circumstances, and that the lenders don't necessarily have clean hands in all of this. And of course these days even graduates of the top law school in the country are having a tough time finding (and keeping) work at very high salaries.

At the same time, though, one wonders about the borrower's judgment. This article serves as a good reminder that higher education is an investment -- a very expensive one -- and piling on more and more debt means you have to be ruthless in assessing what your income prospects are likely to be coming out of School X with a degree in Y to be leveraged in market Z. And to invest in law school and then have so much trouble passing the bar exam... that's a scary scenario, too.

Some closely related postings on the subject:

Please share your thoughts! I imagine people will have strong feelings about this NYT article.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).