Law grad refused bar admission for debt

Can loan debt stop a graduate from practicing law? That’s what’s facing Hassan Jonathan Griffin, who graduated from Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law in 2008 with $170,000 in loans.

On Jan. 11, the Ohio Supreme Court denied his application for admission to the bar, filed when he registered to take the bar exam after failing previously. What upset the court was a report from the Commission on Character and Fitness focusing on Griffin’s loans and what commissioners said was “lack of a plan to pay them off.” Commissioners said Griffin “has not proved that he possesses the requisite character, fitness and moral qualifications for admission to the practice of law,” and the court agreed.

The decision drew protests on Internet sites like AbovetheLaw.com where Elie Mystal wrote: “If Griffin can’t pass C&F, Ohio might as well say that half of the recent graduates in the state don’t have the ‘character and fitness’ to be a lawyer.”

Many bloggers feared that the ruling could start a trend. Griffin’s situation resembles that of a New York State law grad, denied admission to the bar in 2009 because of $400,000 in student debt.

“Griffin may seem to have significant debt,” said Eric Brehm of Brehm & Associates in Columbus, Ohio, who helped Griffin with his case. “But I understand that a good number of recent law graduates could fit into his category. It’s a sad situation, and I believe the precedent in this case might affect other students down the road.”

Others said that was unlikely since more was involved than Griffin’s debt. Among them is William Lyle Loveland of Loveland & Brosius, who represented the Columbus Bar Association in the case. The court assigns association members to do character and fitness interviews of candidates.

“Folks with huge debt get approved every day by the association,” Loveland said. “No one is turned down for debt alone. The issue was that he did not have a plan to pay it off.”

Griffin, who could not be reached to comment, failed the Ohio exam in July 2008 and in February and July 2009. When he applied to take it again, the Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness investigated and focused on Griffin’s debt.

“This is an unfortunate situation for this Class of 2008 graduate,” said Garry Jenkins, associate dean for academic affairs at Ohio State. “But it’s important to recognize that this is an unusual set of circumstances that involves a number of complicated factors. It was not the student’s total debt amount that resulted in this outcome.”

The average loan debt of a J.D. graduate at Ohio State is $81,408.

Court filings say that Griffin, now in his 40s, left law school with about $170,000 in student loans — $20,000 for undergraduate studies at Arizona State and $150,000 for law school. He also owed $16,500 on credit cards. After law school, he began working 24 to 32 hours a week at the Franklin County Public Defender’s Office earning $12 an hour. He made no payments on student loans and failed to pay his credit cards.

Loveland said a major problem was that Griffin had said he was going to file for bankruptcy to get time to pass the bar and find full-time work. But he never filed the bankruptcy petition as promised. Although bankruptcy would not have eliminated his law loans, it might have reduced the size of his payments.

Still at issue is whether Griffin can retake the exam as the court said he could do if the committee agrees. As of late January, he was still waiting for a ruling.

“How is he supposed to pay off his loans if he can’t take the bar and practice law?” Brehm said. “This is a very nice man trying to better himself but who made some bad choices. He’s now taking measures to mitigate the situation and negotiate with creditors.”

By Rebecca Larsen for The National Jurist. This story ran in the February 2011 issue of The National Jurist.

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