Questions of Discrimination

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Today is Law Student Mental Health Day. Time to take a look at the barriers some law students face when they have sought mental health treatment during school. The first barrier is the very front door to the legal profession. Before someone can practice law, they must first graduate from law school and then apply to take a bar exam, take the exam, and pass. Most states have a bar application that ask questions about whether the student sought treatment. These questions fall under the application’s “character and fitness” section suggesting that seeking treatment is somehow wrong or shows a lack of good character. Since each U.S. state and territory’s bar association sets its own rules for bar admissions, the standards and applications are different depending on the location.

Currently, 40 states include questions in their bar exam application asking about the applicant’s mental health history, diagnosis or treatment. If an applicant answers “yes” to these questions, they are required to fill out a form revealing private information and may be forced to turn over confidential treatment records before being allowed to take the bar exam. The video below discusses the impact these questions have on applicants and the diversity of the legal profession. You can also see how your state is doing and how to take action.

Action Needed!

  • Florida Residents: The United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, is interested in learning about the experiences of law school students or alumni who have applied for admission to the Florida Bar and who have disclosed mental health or substance use history to the Bar as part of the application process. Additionally, the Department is interested in learning about the experiences of mental health care providers whom the Florida Bar has asked to provide documentation on behalf of bar applicants. The Department respects providers’ confidentiality obligations.  If either of these categories applies to you and you are interested in confidentially sharing your experience, please contact: Sarah Shor at sarah.shor@usdoj.gov.

How is Your State Doing?

State Link to website Do they ask?
Alabama Alabama State Bar Yes
Alaska Alaska Bar Association No
Arizona State Bar of Arizona No
Arkansas Arkansas Bar Association Yes
California The State Bar of California No
Colorado Colorado Bar Association Yes
Connecticut Connecticut Bar Examining Committee Yes
Delaware Delaware State Bar Association Yes
Florida The Florida Bar Yes
Georgia State Bar of Georgia Yes
Hawaii Hawaii State Bar Association Yes
Idaho Idaho State Bar Yes
Illinois Illinois State Bar Association No
Indiana Indiana State Bar Association Yes
Iowa The Iowa State Bar Association Yes
Kansas Kansas Bar Association Yes
Kentucky Kentucky Bar Association Yes
Louisiana Louisiana State Bar Association Yes
Maine Maine State Bar No
Maryland Maryland State Bar Association, Inc. Yes
Massachusetts Massachusetts Bar Association No
Michigan State Bar of Michigan Yes
Minnesota Minnesota State Bar Association Yes
Mississippi The Mississippi Bar Yes
Missouri The Missouri Bar Yes
Montana State Bar of Montana Yes
Nebraska Nebraska State Bar Association Yes
Nevada State Bar of Nevada Yes
New Hampshire New Hampshire Bar Association Yes
New Jersey New Jersey State Bar Association Yes
New Mexico State Bar of New Mexico No
New York New York State Bar Association Yes
North Carolina North Carolina State Bar Yes
North Dakota State Bar Association of North Dakota Yes
Ohio Ohio State Bar Association Yes
Oklahoma Oklahoma Bar Association Yes
Oregon Oregon State Bar Yes
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Bar Association No
Rhode Island Rhode Island Bar Association Yes
South Carolina South Carolina Bar Yes
South Dakota State Bar of South Dakota Yes
Tennessee Tennessee Bar Association No
Texas State Bar of Texas Yes
Utah Utah State Bar Yes
Vermont Vermont Bar Association Yes
Virginia Virginia State Bar Yes
Washington Washington State Bar Association No
West Virginia The West Virginia State Bar Yes
Wisconsin Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners Yes
Wyoming Wyoming State Bar Yes

Who is Addressing the Stigma Behind These Questions?

  • The Dave Nee Foundation makes an Uncommon Counsel presentations at law schools. After the Foundation makes an Uncommon Counsel presentation, attendees are asked to complete a feedback form about the program. Included on the feedback form is the statement: Most law school students do not seek help when needed because they fear the professional consequences. Attendees are asked to rate their level of agreement with that statement ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). In the 2014-2015 academic year, with feedback from 34 schools, 71% of attendees reported that they agreed or strongly agreed that law students do not seek help because they fear the professional consequences. This fear is both wrong and violates the American with Disabilities Act’s clear mandate that we cannot treat people with disabilities differently based on assumptions or stigma.   
  • The Department of Justice (the federal entity that enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act) issued guidance suggesting the bar association ask about conduct not treatment.
  • For over four decades, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law has fought for the rights and dignity of people with mental disabilities. Recently, Bazelon settled a case with the Louisiana Bar Association over their questions.
  • The American Bar Association House of Delegates approved a resolution discouraging state bar entities from inquiring into the applicant’s mental health disabilities.

Related links:

4 thoughts on “Questions of Discrimination

  1. Amelia Bland Waller says:

    I have been successfully engaged in the practice of law for more than 30 years, I was counseled in law school to lie about my history of mental health treatment, but I did not. I continue to be honest and open in discussing this issue with others. I feel like I am a walking success story for appropriate mental health treatment.

  2. Kathy Flaherty says:

    Thank you for all you are doing to address this issue. Yes, I am the Kathleen Flaherty referred to in Melody Moezzi’s NYT article. I have always maintained that the only people who ever get caught up in this web are those who have gotten help and addressed their issues, and made it through law school, and passed the bar examination. We are not the problem. However, I must note for the record that in Connecticut, the Bar Association is a voluntary bar and has nothing to do with the admissions process. That is in the hands of the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee. Their website is: http://www.jud.ct.gov/CBEC/.

    1. Tina Pinedo says:

      Thank you Kathy! We’ve corrected the chart to point to the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee.

  3. Thank you! Thank you for helping spread the word that these practices are discriminatory, that they perpetuate stereotypes and that action can and must be taken in the collective and for each and every law student. The reminder for law students that avoidance of an official mental health diagnosis is not the way forward. All students should seek and receive quality and timely help. Law students please support your peers to seek help if you are concerned about their wellbeing.

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