New York Removes Mental Health Question on Bar Application

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on February 27, 2020 | Last updated on May 07, 2020

Here's a catch-22 for law students: Put your career at risk by admitting struggles with addiction and mental health. Or, hide it as best as you can and watch as the problem gets worse, putting your career at risk.

This has long been a genuine problem for some law students. While up to one in four law students exhibits problem drinking, very few get treatment. In part, this is because many bar applicants must disclose mental health issues, including addiction, on the bar application. In 2014, for example, the Survey of Law Student Well-Being found that over 40% of law students failed to seek treatment regarding stress, depression, or substance use because of the potential impact on their admission to the bar.

While addressing mental health and substance use in the legal profession is a valid and necessary objective, anything that incentivizes law students to ignore mental health and substance abuse is not the right solution. There's also the issue of whether asking such intrusive questions about impairments that do not necessarily reflect the ability to practice law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

New York Joins a Growing Number of States

That is why New York is the latest state to remove its bar application question regarding the treatment of mental health conditions, including addiction. Instead, New York will ask potential attorneys about "conduct that is relevant to a candidate's fitness to practice law," according to New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

New York joins Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, and Virginia in substantially altering the once-ubiquitous mental health questions on bar applications.

De-Stigmatizing Mental Health

The American Bar Association has advocated for changing mental health questions on bar applications for the last several years. So too has the Conference of Chief Justices, along with multiple law schools nationwide.

Significant progress has been made. Considering the continued momentum, it wouldn't be surprising to see other states adopt similar changes in the coming years.

If You Are a Law Student . . .

Many states do still have a mental health question on the bar application. However, even if you are seeking bar admission in a state that has yet to revisit its mental health questions, getting mental health treatment is not a bar to admission in any state. For example, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners notes that it views "effective treatment as enhancing the applicant's ability to meet the essential eligibility requirements to practice law." Students who may be concerned but want confidential information and support can reach out to their state's lawyer assistance program. These programs are completely confidential. You can inquire about your state's disclosure requirements there.

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