The New York Times by JONATHAN D. GLATER - July 2, 2009
All his life, Robert Bowman wanted to be a lawyer. He overcame a troubled childhood, a tragic accident that nearly cost him a leg and a debilitating Jet Ski collision. He put himself through community college, worked and borrowed heavily to help pay for college, graduate school and even law school. He took the New York bar examination not once, not twice, not three times, but four, passing it last year. Finally, he seemed to be on his way. In January, the committee of New York lawyers that reviews applications for admission to the bar interviewed Mr. Bowman, studied his history and the debt he had amassed, and called his persistence remarkable. It recommended his approval. But a group of five state appellate judges decided this spring that his student loans were too big and his efforts to repay them too meager for him to be a lawyer. “Applicant has not made any substantial payments on the loans,” the judges wrote in a terse decision and an unusual rejection of the committee’s recommendation. “Applicant has not presently established the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law.” Mr. Bowman, 47, appears to have crossed some unspoken line with his $400,000 in student debt and penalties, accumulated over many years.
New York’s courts have overlooked misconduct like lawyers’ solicitation of minors for sex, efforts to deceive judges and possession of cocaine. Those instances have led merely to temporary suspensions from practice. “It usually takes a pretty significant record of some underlying misconduct to keep you out permanently,” said Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor at Stanford who has studied bar admissions across the states. Excluding someone for having too much debt was odd, she said; the hard questions about loans usually involve applicants who have used bankruptcy to try to escape loans, she said, and Mr. Bowman has not. Mr. Bowman concedes that he has never made a payment on his loans, partly because of medical and other deferrals and problems with his lender. But he says he intends to make good, adding that his only hope is to begin practicing law — which means overturning the judges’ decision. While thousands of indebted students have complained about their treatment by lenders, Mr. Bowman has documented his personal debt crisis with remarkable, obsessive intensity. He claims Sallie Mae overcharged him, imposing hefty and unjustified fees; did not allow him to defer payments when he was entitled to do so and improperly accounted for periods when he did defer. According to his detailed records, a Sallie Mae representative even threatened him. “If you default, your license will be taken from you,” the representative said. “Do you understand that?” When Mr. Bowman said that he did not yet have a law license, the representative responded that the company would prevent him from getting one. Martha Holler, a Sallie Mae spokeswoman, said that such threats would violate the company’s rules. “The size of this account is extremely unusual, but not surprising given that the customer took out 32 loans to pursue undergraduate, law and masters of law studies and has not made a single monthly payment over his 26-year student loan history,” Ms. Holler said. “We are performing an extensive review of his extraordinary case, and if we identify any errors we will quickly rectify them.”
Mr. Bowman has not had an easy time of it. He was shuffled through foster care and various legal proceedings as a child. He was impressed by the lawyers who represented his interests and saw a possible life’s work. Getting a college degree took 10 years because he had spent nearly six in rehabilitation, relearning how to walk after an all-terrain vehicle hit him while he was stopped on his motorcycle. The accident nearly cost him his left leg; he graduated from the State University of New York in Albany in 1995. He enrolled at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 2000. After his third year, he began a masters of law program in London, where he lived with a girlfriend. He graduated in December 2004 with about $230,000 in student loan debt, and she helped support him while he studied, and studied again and again, for the bar exam. In 2007, Mr. Bowman asked for an accounting of his loans, the payment deferrals he had used and his repayment options. He said he did not receive that information for nearly two years — a point disputed by Sallie Mae, which said it tried to reach Mr. Bowman several times in 2007. Mr. Bowman passed the New York bar in February 2008. Soon after, while living with his once-estranged mother in Miramar, Fla., he was swimming at a beach when a Jet Ski lost control and slammed into him, breaking his good leg in four places. “My luck on these things,” Mr. Bowman said. “So I contacted Sallie Mae and I’m like, I need a medical deferment and advice. Their response is, none available.”
Sallie Mae transferred Mr. Bowman’s private student loans, the ones not guaranteed by the federal government, to a collection agency, which tacked on a 25 percent fee. That agency transferred the loan again, and he said the next collection agency tacked on another 25 percent fee. Sallie Mae denied this, saying he was charged the fee only once. But suddenly, Mr. Bowman found that he owed more than $400,000. Knowing it would be difficult to explain his debt to New York’s Committee on Character and Fitness, which reviews applications for admission to the bar, Mr. Bowman gathered correspondence with Sallie Mae, loan statements, even the emergency room report on the Jet Ski incident. The three lawyers who interviewed him in Albany in January found Mr. Bowman’s “determination to pursue a postsecondary education remarkable,” according to the written evaluation. As for the loans, they continued, “it appears unconscionable that a student loan indebtedness could go from $270,000 to $435,000 in four years.” Two of the committee members did not return calls seeking comment; the third could not be reached. In April the judges rejected the committee’s recommendation and ruled Mr. Bowman could not be a lawyer. Michael J. Novack, the clerk of the court that handled Mr. Bowman’s application, declined to comment specifically on his case. “Generally speaking, if the committee on character and fitness recommends admission of an applicant, the court approves of it,” Mr. Novack said. “But not always.” Along with asking the court to reverse its decision, Mr. Bowman has consulted lawyers and is preparing a lawsuit against Sallie Mae. One way or another, he vows, he will make the switch from client to lawyer.