An Ohio law school grad might not be allowed to sit for this year’s bar exam partly because she and her husband have a combined educational debt of almost $900,000 that they are unlikely ever to pay off.

The state’s Board on Character and Fitness recommended that the applicant not be allowed to take the exam until 2024, and had harsh words for her situation, including that she had “learned to ‘work the system’ effectively.”   The Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month, and will decide whether to accept the Board’s findings and recommendation.  (You can watch the argument video here, in which the applicant argues her case pro se.)  The proceedings spotlight the issue of educational loans, which for some law school students can total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Indebted for life

According to the Board opinion, the applicant is 59 years old and graduated from Capital University Law School in 2019.  Although the local county bar admissions committee concluded that the applicant met the character and fitness requirements necessary to take the Ohio bar exam, the Board invoked its sua sponte authority to carry out its own investigation.

The Board said in its opinion that the applicant’s share of the couple’s student loan debt was about $340,000, and the applicant testified that they are on a “percentage of income” payment plan, under which they will pay a percentage of their income — likely for the rest of their lives.  Currently, the payments on this educational debt are zero, based on the couple’s low income, the opinion said.

In addition to the educational debt, the Board opinion cited other debts that had been outstanding for many years, and some that had effectively “gone away” because of age.  Nonetheless, the Board acknowledged that the applicant was current on her present financial obligations.

Meritless litigation?

The Board was concerned not only with the applicant’s long-standing unpaid debt, but her involvement in about 60 civil actions that she brought on her own behalf in municipal, state and  federal courts relating to many different kinds of issues — personal injury, medical malpractice, car sales, rent due on her Section 8 housing, property law issues and bankruptcy.

The applicant admitted to the Board that she “did not know what she was doing” when she filed some of these suits; the Board characterized many as “ill-advised and … meritless.”  The Board concluded that the applicant appeared to be “a person who would rather file a lawsuit … than resolve an issue by negotiation or other means.”

Clear and convincing evidence of fitness

Ohio bar applicants have the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that they have the requisite character, fitness and moral qualifications to be admitted.  Ohio Gov. Bar R. I, § 11(D)(1).  (Other jurisdictions have the same standard of proof.)  And in Ohio, as in other jurisdictions, the “neglect of financial responsibilities” is a factor that must be considered in determining whether applicants have established their character and fitness.  Gov. Bar R. I § 13(D)(3).

Regulators take a dim view of significant debt when it is coupled with vague or unfeasible plans for repayment.  For instance, in a 2011 opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court turned down an applicant based on student debt of $170,000, coupled with additional credit-card debt, part-time employment, and lack of a feasible plan to satisfy the applicant’s financial obligations.

The underlying principle appears to be that, as the state supreme court said in a 2009 decision, “an applicant’s neglect of his or her own financial responsibilities bodes ill for the applicant’s ability to oversee the interests of clients with the diligence and integrity required of the profession.”

That might be a debatable point, but the fact remains that debt — a fact of life for a large proportion of bar applicants — can be a roadblock to getting a law license if the applicant doesn’t have a convincing strategy for dealing with it.