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.
For whatever reason, physical disabilities don’t attract the same stigma as mental illness. There are plenty of lawyers who use wheelchairs, live with seizure conditions, or are deaf or, like the Governor of New York State, David Paterson, legally blind. These attorneys require special assistance to overcome their disabilities, but they are universally accepted as competent professionals.
Lawyers battling issues of mental health deserve the same treatment. If you can overcome mental health and addiction issues to pursue a successful career, you are every bit as worthy of our respect as someone arriving in court in a wheelchair or using a Braille device.
There are thousands of practicing lawyers living with mental health and addiction issues. I know, because as I therapist I’ve worked personally with dozens of them. I can tell you they have enough to deal with already – they don’t need the further pressure of an unfair stigma, and the constant fear of being exposed and ostracized for their condition.
If you are a lawyer dealing with an issue of mental illness, you are probably doing what anyone else in your situation would do. You preserve your confidentiality by trusting the knowledge of your condition only to trusted friends, you seek professional help – and then you take it day by day, show up at your job, and do your best.
Maybe you are working with a therapist to overcome the crippling pain of depression.
Maybe you are battling an eating disorder, like bulimia or anorexia.
Maybe you are in recovery from alcohol or drug abuse, and drop by an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting each night, to count another day and recommit yourself to sobriety.
Maybe you are dealing with mood fluctuations resulting from a bipolar condition, and have to check in with a psychiatrist each month to adjust your medication.
Maybe you have a suicide attempt in your past, and work hard each day to overcome the impulse towards self-harm and to remind yourself of everything you have to live for.
Maybe you battle anxiety, and struggle with panic attacks or phobias that can take you by surprise and leave you shaken.
Despite these disabilities, like every other practicing lawyer – you wake up every morning, put on your suit, and do your job.
For that, you deserve respect.
If mental illness can’t stop you from pursuing your profession, there’s no reason to let ignorance stand in your way.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)