Forgive Us Our Debts

Thirty-two years ago when I started my career as a lawyer, I hardly had a penny to my name. I owned a 1968 Volkswagen Beatle, an eight-track tape player, and one blue suit that I had worn in law school moot court competition and in job interviews. I called it my law suit.

The bad news was that my net worth was zero. And the good news was that my net worth was zero!

While I hardly had a penny in my pocket, I also did not have a single penny of debt. I had emerged from 19 years of schooling and one brutal two-day bar examination debt-free. The explanation? Two wonderful words: public education.

I attended public schools from first grade through law school. The first 12 years were absolutely free. No tuition, free textbooks, and even a free lunch if I couldn't afford it.

The next four years were spent at the University of Tennessee where during my freshman year, tuition was (I am not making this up) $125 a quarter, or a whopping $375 a year! Room, board, textbooks and an occasional pizza added a few hundred bucks more a year to the cost, but with summer jobs and work-study, even a kid from the poor side of Memphis (if that's not a redundancy) could afford it.

The Big Orange College of Law cost a little bit more, but not a lot.

And so on Aug. 15, 1978, as I arrived for my first day on the job as an associate with Thomason, Crawford and Hendrix, I was looking forward to my first paycheck. I was going to be paid the princely sum of $1,000 a month! Yes, I was a thousandnaire! True, the monthly grand would quickly be spent on rent, pizza and a few more law suits, as I started to build my impressive Gentlemen's Quarterly wardrobe. But student loans? Not one, thanks to the Memphis City Schools, good old State U, and the Big Orange College of Law!

But these days, your average (and even above average!) law school graduate walks away from her or his commencement holding not only a diploma, but a staggering $80,000 in student loan debts. And it's no wonder, given the fact that even in-state tuition at the Big Orange Law School is now more than $13,000 a year. And tuition at Vanderbilt Law School? Well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it!

It is bad enough to begin one's legal career as an indentured servant, with a debt approaching $100,000. But believe it or not, it could be worse. Your law school student loan debt could actually prevent you from becoming a lawyer, even after passing the bar. Just ask Robert Bowman.

Mr. Bowman is a graduate of the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. In February of 2008, he passed the New York Bar examination. He was then interviewed by a panel of three lawyers in Albany, who comprise the Committee on Character and Fitness for the New York Bar. They unanimously recommended his admission.

But Robert Bowman has a problem. He has unpaid student loans. A lot of them. Counting the penalties, he now owes over $400,000 in student loans. And it's a debt one can't discharge in bankruptcy.

Most of Mr. Bowman's debt was amassed during a 10-year period when he was pursuing his undergraduate degree at the State University of New York in Albany. But he spent nearly six of those 10 years in rehabilitation relearning how to walk after being in a motorcycle accident.

In November, Mr. Bowman discovered that his debt may actually cost him more than $400,000. It may cost him his law license and a chance to practice law. A panel of five New York judges denied his application for admission to the bar finding that his application "demonstrates a course of action amounting to a neglect of financial responsibilities with respect to student loans."

Bowman, whose student loan debt is now growing by about $10,000 a month, told The New York Times, "This has destroyed my life. Everything I've worked for, every effort, every fight that I've taken to make this progress, has been for nothing."

He has appealed to New York's highest court in the hopes that after graduating from law school, passing the bar exam, and being approved by the Bar Committee on Character and Fitness, he can now get the chance to hang out his shingle, practice law, and start repaying his loans " although with interest mounting at 10 grand a month, he'd better be a very successful plaintiff's lawyer.

While I am not ready to file an amicus curiae brief, I hope the New York State Court of Appeals gives Mr. Bowman a chance. This is not the classic case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It's a case of giving a gosling a chance to lay some eggs or at least be able to afford scrambled eggs.

But regardless of the outcome, the sad saga of Robert Bowman should be a lesson to all working class kids who dream of growing up to be a lawyer. Enroll in a good public school, work hard, keep your nose clean, and don't amass debt as if you were a member of Congress.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be. If you are not careful, you may graduate from law school, pass the bar exam, and be approved by the moral fitness committee, only to come face-to-face with a bar admissions committee that is unmoved by the prayer found in Matthew 6:12: Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

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Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.