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Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

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“I never thought I’d end up working as a contract attorney doing doc review in a windowless basement,” my client bemoaned. “But then I read that piece about the lawyer who’s working as a clerk at WalMart. At least I’ve still got it over him in terms of job prestige.”

Well, you know how obsessed lawyers are with job prestige.

There’s a phrase, “The Downward Drift,” that crops up in discussions of serious mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia, and/or chronic substance abuse. The idea is that you are afflicted with serious mental illness, or become addicted to a harmful substance, which in turn leads to a slow, inevitable slide downward in terms of social class. Before long, the wealthy, Upper East Side business executive suffering from schizophrenia and/or severe alcoholism finds himself jobless, friendless and eventually even homeless, sleeping in shelters and begging for change.

Weirdly, the same phenomenon – the Downward Drift – affects people who acquire Juris Doctor degrees. It sort of makes sense, since – at least nowadays, with people like me bellowing jeremiads on every street corner, it would be evidence of utter madness – textbook psychosis, perhaps – for anyone to head in the direction of law school, at least unless that law school is one of the top three in the country and someone else is footing the bill. But try to persuade a kid with a high LSAT score not to apply to law school – it’s nearly as tough as persuading a kid who’s gotten into a “top-500” (or whatever) law school into not attending (especially if he’s “won” one of those risible $20,000 so-called “scholarships” they hand out like pushers showering crack vials on newbie users.) If that task sounds Herculean (or Sisyphean), try talking a kid who’s blown $80,000 on his first year of law school out of “finishing up” the other two (useless) years – even if he’s hated every moment of the experience so far. This is where the parallel with addiction comes in because I guarantee you it’s no easier than convincing a chronic alcoholic that ten martinis is really enough. Even my own much-vaunted powers of persuasion come up short at that juncture. Because it’s impossible. An addict will keep drinking and drugging until he passes out face down in a puddle on the sidewalk. And a law student will blow that additional $160,000 to finish those two more pointless years. It’s a sure thing – just like zombies like eating flesh, the sun likes rising in the morning and Pat Robertson likes blaming bad weather on the homosexual agenda.

So how does the “Downward Drift” work, at least for lawyers?

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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):

Mr. Meyerhofer,

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!

Sincerely,

“Stumped in Syracuse”

To begin with, here is a passage from a pamphlet, entitled “Are you fit to be a Lawyer,” published by the New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust:

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.

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