Robert Bowman: Aspiring Lawyer, Ethics Martyr

Robert Bowman, according to a panel of New York judges, does not have the requisite good character to be admitted to the practice of law in New York. The reason for the panel’s finding is superficially logical: he owes nearly a half-million dollars in student loans. This is, says the panel, per se proof of irresponsible and negligent financial management, making him an unacceptable risk for any client.  The panel is almost certainly wrong.
Mr. Bowman  appears to be a victim of bad luck, bad timing, and the relentless viciousness of the loan collection process, of which the judges can hardly be completely ignorant. He also seems to have exactly the sort of integrity one would think the legal profession would want. Unless something changes, however, he is about to be sacrificed to the law’s quirky admission standards that find potential admittees unfit to practice despite far less evidence of bad character than scores of bar members in good standing.

A special subcommittee of the New York Bar investigated Bowman’s case, which is unusual, impressive, and tragic. Robert Bowman is 47 years old now. He did not attend either junior high school or high school, but in middle age decided to educate himself. He got a GED, then took out the first of his student loans to attend community college. Eventually he achieved his BA, and then attended and graduated from law school, acquiring more debt along the way, $270,000 of it. An “administrative glitch” stopped him from taking the Florida Bar Exam in 2005;  after three tries, he eventually passed the New York Bar exam. His four year odyssey seeking bar admission has seen his debt liability explode, primarily because Sallie Mae, unlike his other loan creditors, has refused to give him extra time to pay and handed his case over to a collection agency, which has applied crushing interest fees. He is now accruing interest at the rate of $10,000 a month.

Bowman told the committee that he could have declared bankruptcy before 2005, but that he was responsible for the loans and has always wanted to repay them in full. He feels he can start doing that once he is working as a lawyer; indeed, he has one firm  ready to hire him as soon as he is admitted. The subcommittee (its members are lawyers, remember), expressed shock that Sallie Mae would push Bowman’s liability from $270,000 to $435,000 in three years, and pronounced it “unconscionable.”  The subcommittee concluded that far from being of dubious character, Bowman was an individual of “exceptional character,” with unusual perseverance, humility and tenacity.  It strongly recommended him for admission to the New York Bar, despite the outstanding debts.

That would be enough to get most applicants though, but the judges said no.  This week, they turned down Bowman’s appeal. Despite language in the rules about “moral turpitude,” the main ways for an applicant to practice law to show he or she is untrustworthy are conviction of a crime, dishonorable discharge from the military, perjury, fraud, treason, and failing to pay debts. The court’s evaluation includes assessing whether a potential lawyer is likely to betray a client’s trust, and there is a legitimate argument that lawyers who are in dire financial straits face special temptations to take their client’s money and run. Robert Bowman’s personal history would seem to argue against such fears, however.

Ninety-nine per cent of the individuals who would accumulate a half-million dollars in student loan debts may be untrustworthy and not fit to practice law. It sure looks as if Robert Bowman is the exception. The law needs ethical lawyers, and Bowman needs to pay off his loans. The judges can address both these needs by recognizing that not everything that quacks like a duck is one, and letting him finally practice law.

2 thoughts on “Robert Bowman: Aspiring Lawyer, Ethics Martyr

  1. If ninety percent of the people who accumulate $500,000 in student debt are untrustworthy, then that probably means that 90% of the physicians in this country are untrustworthy. That is not far from what they accumulate in med school and if they have substantial student loans from their undergraduate education, it can easily push it that high. Remember, there are many schools that cost over $120,000 for four years and the average time-to-graduation for a large chunk of those is ~6 years (make that a $180,000 B.A.).

    I have to wonder what the motivation of the judges were in this case. They had Mr. Bowman’s explanation and that was backed up severalfold by their own investigative committee. Why don’t people follow the suggestion of their own investigation? Because the investigation wasn’t supposed to find the truth, it was supposed to support the ruling that had already been rendered.

    The puzzling thing here is, why? Are they trying to reduce the number of new lawyers by keeping out the poor kids. If this becomes a common standard (high student loan debt) it will become difficult for children who don’t have well-off parents to become lawyers. That is fine for the current lawyers (their children can become lawyers), and it keeps the rabble out. This may not be the explanation, but is the best idea I can come up with.

    • The ethics committees would challenge your analogy with physicians, because 1) they don’t handle patient’s money and 2) honesty is not really a measurement of what makes a good physician (see: “House” That character would be disbarred every week.). Medical ethics and legal ethics are in different universes.

      I think the decision was made to cement a larger principle (don’t take on more debt than you can pay back) even though the principle was unfairly applied in this case. But these decisions are supposed to be made according to the individual facts.

      I doubt that any sinister motives are at play. It’s just a terrible decision, like judges make every day.

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