New York law students battling depression, anxiety and other mental health issues will no longer suffer in silence for fear that treatment may prevent them from becoming a lawyer.
In a major victory for the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), mental health-related questions have been removed from the state bar application effective immediately. The announcement was made today by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore during her State of the Judiciary address.
The chief judge credited NYSBA for raising the issue and stated that “the amended application will no longer ask intrusive questions about a candidate’s mental health conditions or treatment history.”
DiFiore noted that studies have shown the presence of mental health inquiries on the bar application often prevents students from getting the help that they need. From student debt to an uncertain job market, combined with the normal rigors of law school, law students statistically are suffering from more stress and mental health issues than ever before.
In fact, a recent study sponsored by the American Bar Association discovered that 42% of surveyed law students believed they needed help for emotional or mental health issues in the past year but only half sought assistance. That is because 45% of the respondents feared that seeking help could pose a threat to their bar admission.
New York now becomes just the 11th state to protect the well-being of law school students by removing questions about mental health treatment from the state bar application.
“Today marks a historic step forward in addressing the ongoing mental health crisis in the legal profession,” said NYSBA President Hank Greenberg. “Future generations of New York lawyers no longer need to live in fear that bravely and smartly seeking treatment for mental health issues could one day derail their careers.”
The issue has been a NYSBA priority since Greenberg announced the Working Group on Attorney Mental Health last June. NYSBA’s House of Delegates approved the working group’s report in November entitled The Impact, Legality, Use and Utility of Mental Disability Questions on the New York State Bar Application.
In February 2019, the Conference of Chief Justices passed a resolution urging its members and state and territorial bar admission authorities to eliminate from bar admission applications any questions that ask about “mental health history, diagnosis, or treatment” and to instead use questions that only focus on an applicant’s conduct.
NYSBA’s working group then reviewed questions on the New York bar application’s character and fitness questionnaire that address an applicant’s mental health issues to determine if they comport with the nationally endorsed recommendations found in the Conference of Chief Justices’ resolution.
The working group determined that all questions related to mental disability, including Question 34, the mental health-related question, are unnecessary and should be eliminated from the bar application. The report also noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits the screening of candidates based on mental disability.
Just days after NYSBA approved the working group’s report, State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman introduced legislation that would have prohibited the state bar application from asking prospective attorneys about their mental health.
Numerous local bar associations and statewide mental health organizations submitted letters of support for NYSBA’s proposal. Additionally, deans from 14 of New York’s 15 law schools submitted a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks urging the removal of question 34 from the state bar’s application.
“The deans of New York State law schools responded swiftly to my invitation to go on the record supporting the report’s recommendation to remove the question on mental health,” CUNY School of Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek said recently. “Law school deans take seriously both their obligation to support the professional development of their students – including their physical, emotional and mental health – and their role in the maintenance of the integrity of the profession through vigilant regulation.”
Separately, a change.org petition created by second-year Columbia Law School student Samantha Braver began circulating on social media and it has now been signed by more than 1,300 people.
Question 34 of the application asked: “Do you currently have any condition or impairment including, but not limited to a mental, emotional, psychiatric, nervous or behavioral disorder or condition, or an alcohol, drug or other substance abuse condition or impairment or gambling addiction, which in any way impairs or limits your ability to practice law?”
If an applicant answered ‘yes,’ then they were asked to further describe the nature of the condition or impairment.
Going forward, the question will ask: “Within the past seven years, have you asserted any condition or impairment as a defense, in mitigation, or as an explanation for your conduct in the course of any inquiry, any investigation, or any administrative or judicial proceeding by an educational institution, government agency, professional organization, or licensing authority; or in connection with an employment disciplinary or termination procedure?”
The State of Lawyers’ Mental Health
A survey conducted by ALM regarding legal professionals’ mental health and substance abuse issues that was released last week only further bolsters NYSBA’s decision to prioritize the ongoing mental health crisis in the legal profession.
According to the survey, just over 31% of the roughly 3,800 respondents feel they are depressed, 64% deal with anxiety, about 10% battle alcoholism and nearly three percent believe they have a drug problem.
Of those respondents, 73% think their work environment contributes to their mental health problems and 74% think the legal profession has had a negative impact on their mental health over time.