For several years I chronicled the frustrating travails of aspiring lawyer Robert Bowman. He was the New York law student repeatedly turned down for membership in the bar by a panel of New York judges, who determined that he did not have the requisite good character to be admitted to the practice of law in New York because he owed nearly a half-million dollars in student loans. Not paying back financial commitments is one of the specific components of “moral turpitude,” which will block anyone from becoming a lawyer, though it will seldom get one kicked out of the profession after one becomes a lawyer. Go figure. The panel kept rejecting Bowman because they felt his debt was per se proof of irresponsible and negligent financial management, making him an unacceptable risk for any client.
A New York bar association subcommittee investigated, and 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. Ireaclize now that I never told Ethics Alarms readers “the rest of the story”: Bowman is a New York lawyer now. He finally won his appeal, though the news media, which chronicled his failures, decided that his ultimate success wasn’t newsworthy.
How do I know this? Bowman contacted me himself to tell me. He said he was grateful to all the people who had supported his quest, and was telling each of them, individually, in person.
Now comes the story, also with a possible happy ending, of another frustrated lawyer-to-be with similar issues, this time in Ohio, although I must say that her circumstances seem a bit more difficult to excuse. Cynthia Marie Rodgers (above) is a Capital University School of Law graduate whose Ohio character and fitness application was rejected because she has nearly twice as much school loan debt as Bowman, almost $900,000.
Unlike Bowman, who had kept working at menial jobs and trying to pay back the debts even as they compounded, Rodgers seems to have no clear plan to ever repay the sum. Nonetheless, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled this week that she can can take the Ohio bar exam,
The court ruled for Rodgers because, the majority said, she was candid about her financial situation and so far has complied with the terms of her student loan repayment plan, hopeless though it appears to be. Rodgers is disabled as a result of a 2001 accident, and can’t work a full week. Her school debt was consolidated with her husband’s, and he also can’t make loan payments because he’s semi-retired and seeking disability
Rodgers represented herself in a January Ohio Supreme Court hearing, and told the court she was enrolled in a 25-year, income-based repayment plan that comes to term in six years, at which point any remaining debt would be discharged. She also told the court about other unpaid debts that no longer show up on her credit report, demonstrating her honesty. Based on this, the Court disagreed with the previous decision that Rodgers had neglected her financial responsibilities.
“On the contrary, it appears that she is currently meeting all of her financial obligations with the exception of the one disputed consumer debt mentioned above and that she has taken full advantage of the opportunities that the federal-student-loan program has made available to further her educational goals,” the Court wrote.
The board that rejected her Character and Fitness application also mentioned the many—60????—- frivolous lawsuits Rodgers filed in the past, mostly before she had attended law school.
“At her character and fitness hearing, Rodgers admitted that she was too emotionally involved in those cases and that although she did not know what she was doing when she filed them, she felt ‘something needed to be done’ to correct an injustice. She filed many of the cases herself because she could not afford to hire an attorney,” the Court wrote.
In a dissent, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick F. Fischer disagreed (you can read the whole decision here):
“Rodgers’ lack of diligence in keeping track of her student-loan obligations and her acknowledgment that she will never be able to repay those loans indicates that she believes that those debts are not her problem and that she is relying on someone else (most likely, in this case, the taxpayers) to take care of her debts for her. If this is how she handles her own financial responsibilities, how will she handle her clients’ financial issues?”
My conclusion from all of this? Robert Bowman should have applied to the Ohio Bar and skipped New York. He would have saved a lot of time.
Pointer and Facts: ABA Journal