Last week, Above the Law’s Elie Mystal posted about a frighteningly out-of-touch Ohio Supreme Court decision which held that a recent law school graduate lacked the character, fitness and moral qualifications to take the bar exam.
Was the applicant a killer, drug addict or wife-beater? Nope. Just a 34-year old dad and former self-supporting stockbroker with $170,000 in student loan debt — all but $20,000 of that amount attributable to law school. The Applicant had worked part-time throughout law school at the Public Defender’s Office, earning $12 an hour, and continued in that position after graduation, hoping that if he passed the bar, he could secure full-time employment. Instead of allowing the Applicant to sit for the bar exam – which might have given him a shot at a full time job – the Ohio court criticized the Applicant for failing to find better paying full time employment to pay off his debts. The court then concluded that because of the Applicant’s debt and lack of a plan to satisfy his financial obligations, that he be required to wait and re-apply for the February 2011 bar exam.
It’s hard to grasp the court’s logic in making it more difficult for the Applicant to take the bar. After all, where could he find higher paid work as an attorney without bar membership? Even most contract lawyering positions require a license. Moreover, it’s not clear where the court believed that this Applicant could find a job in this economy. True, he worked as a stockbroker but that was back in the mid-2000s, before he entered law school. Just like the legal profession, the financial industry has downsized as well.
What’s most frightening about this decision, though, is that it could be used to prevent new lawyers from starting their own firms. Just as the Ohio court made a judgment that the Applicant’s career choice of working at the Public Defender was not financially sound, a similar judgment could be made about an entrepreneurial graduate who wants to start a firm. A disciplinary committee might argue that a graduate deeply in debt who willingly accepts the risk of soloing right out of law school instead of settling for a job as a contract lawyer or a paralegal or some other non-lawyer position to pay down debt lacks the fitness or judgment to sit for the bar. A decision like this wouldn’t surprise me either – after all, most disciplinary committees are comprised of small-minded, well-connected lawyers who seek to preserve the status quo because it inures to their advantage. I could easily see a committee trying to make it more difficult for new grads to set up shop, because it would result in more competition for a smaller pool of clients.
Hopefully, the Ohio court’s decision is some kind of strange anomaly rather than another hurdle to make life more difficult for today’s graduates.