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Tuesday
Jan182011

Ohio Supreme Court Denies Law License for Grad with Student Debt

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(COLUMBUS, Ohio) -- While many law school graduates are all too aware of their accumulating pile of debt, few may realize it can prevent them from practicing law and kill any hopes of paying down their loans.

Just ask recent law grad Hassan Jonathan Griffin. The highest court in Ohio denied his bar application because he didn't have a plan to pay back $170,000 in school debt.

The Ohio Supreme Court on Jan. 11 said Griffin lacked a "feasible plan to satisfy his financial obligations." Griffin's debts include $150,000 from law school, $20,000 from his undergraduate studies and $16,500 in credit card debt.

The state's Supreme Court, which regulates admission to the practice of law in Ohio, requires that an applicant be at least 21 years old, have a bachelor's degree and law degree, and pass the Ohio bar examination.

But the state's rules specify that prior to taking the bar exam, applicants must demonstrate they possess "the requisite character, fitness, and moral qualifications for admission to the practice of law."

Griffin, 40, applied in November 2009 for the February 2010 bar exam, but his mounting financial obligations led to an investigation by the state's Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness.

According to the board's report, Griffin graduated from Arizona State University in 2004 when he was 34 and worked full-time as a stockbroker for over five years before attending The Ohio State University Mortiz College of Law.

Since completing his first year of law school, Griffin has worked 24 to 32 hours a week at the Franklin County Public Defender's Office. Though he graduated from law school in 2008, he has been unable to obtain a full-time job and still earns $12 per hour at the public defender's office.

The board recommended that the court reject Griffin but permit him to reapply for the Feb. 2011 bar exam. Griffin confirmed he is re-applying for the February exam and his attorney said his financial matters are now in better order.

Griffin and the others are apparently in good company and if high loan debt were to be a major factor for admission to state bars, few would be admitted.

The American Bar Association (ABA) reported that the average amount borrowed for law school was $91,506 for private schools and $59,324 for public schools in 2008. A committee from the ABA wrote in a report that these figures do not include debt from students' undergraduate years and an average law school student will graduate with debt "well in excess of $100,000."

The November 2009 report, "The Value Proposition of Attending Law School," stated that prior to the recession, starting salaries for associates at large firms were around $160,000 a year.

But among law graduates from the class of 2008, only 23 percent of students started with that salary level. About 42 percent of graduates had an annual salary of less than $65,000. And the ABA report said prospects are even bleaker now, with students competing for half as many jobs at top law firms.

"Far too many law students expect that earning a law degree will solve their financial problems for life," the ABA committee wrote. "In reality, however, attending law school can become a financial burden for law students who fail to consider carefully the financial implications of their decision."

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