The People’s Therapist received an interesting and important letter a few weeks ago from a 3L (I’ve redacted it and altered some details to preserve anonymity):
I have a question (or perhaps a topic suggestion for a post, as I’m sure many students are wondering about this) about the character and fitness part of the NY bar application.
I have seen a therapist several times over the years for issues relating to depression, eating disorders, and self-injury. On the NY bar application it asks whether you have any psychological issues that might effect your ability to perform as a lawyer. I have absolutely no idea whether I’m required to disclose my psychological treatment history, or if I do, how much of it. Is the determination based on what I personally think, or is it a reasonable person standard?
As I’ve had to go to the ER several times over the years, objectively I could see how someone could interpret that as something that could affect my performance. However, I personally don’t think that it does.
I don’t really know who I could ask about this, as I don’t really want my school administrators to know about my issues. Any information you might have would be much appreciated. Thank you so much for your help!
“Stumped in Syracuse”
Neither receiving treatment for alcoholism, drug addiction or mental health concerns, nor the status of being a recovering alcoholic or recovering addict are grounds for denial of admission to the bar.
In New York, the focus of the inquiry is on whether chemical abuse or addiction or a mental health condition impairs the applicant’s current ability to practice law.
The bar application asks whether the applicant has “any mental or emotional condition or substance abuse problem that could adversely affect” the “capability to practice law”, and whether the applicant is “currently using any illegal drugs.”
While honesty in disclosing past conduct (for example, arrests and convictions) is essential, disclosure of past treatment is not required. No questions are asked about past treatment. The Committees encourage law students who are experiencing drug, alcohol or other addiction or mental health issues to address those issues as soon as possible, regardless of when the student plans to seek admission to the bar.
The bottom line seems clear – there’s no legal duty for Stumped in Syracuse to disclose his past history of treatment on his bar application unless his mental illness currently impairs his ability to practice law. Under this standard, it would require a severe mental health condition to trigger this duty, and the majority of situations involving mental illness – certainly the ones described in Stumped in Syracuse’s letter – would not require disclosure.
The real issue here – as Stumped suggests – is stigma. Stumped, like any rational person, is afraid someone will find out about his condition and jump to the unfair assumption that he is unfit for his job. That would be a disaster for anyone interested in preserving his professional reputation. For Stumped, the ignorance surrounding mental illness may pose a greater threat than the illness itself.