Bar Admissions Blog

Helping Bar Applicants Prove Character and Fitness for Admission to the Bar

Mental Health Disclosures

Q. After a suicide attempt as a college junior, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Thanks to medication and psychotherapy, I finished college, survived law school, and am doing much better. Must I disclose this on my bar application?

A. Although many states are removing questions about an applicant's mental health from bar applications, most jurisdictions still ask about psychological disorders and treatment in the following ways:

1. Do you currently have any condition or impairment including, but not limited to, mental or emotional infirmity, alcoholism, substance abuse, or nervous disorder or condition which in any way currently affects, or if untreated could affect, your ability to practice law in a competent and professional manner in this jurisdiction?

2. Are you currently utilizing or being treated with prescription drugs or other substances in order to manage a mental or emotional infirmity, alcoholism, substance abuse, or nervous disorder or condition?

In theory, these questions are designed to assess an applicant's fitness to practice law and whether there are conditions which may impair performance in the future. In practice, these intrusive questions may deter aspiring lawyers from seeking treatment that would have to be disclosed to the Bar.

To protect future clients, it makes sense to ask whether applicants suffer from conditions or impairments that currently affect their ability to function as attorneys. It also seems reasonable to determine whether applicants have ever cited their condition in the course of investigations or proceedings involving criminal offenses, misconduct, or performance problems. Naturally, if the problem is not under control or caused problems in the past, this would be well within the purview of a fitness evaluation.

But most questionnaires go even further, requiring applicants to reveal any mental infirmity which, "if untreated could affect" the individual's competence. If asked in this way, you must disclose your bipolar disorder despite the fact that your current treatment regimen has it under control.

After investigating these types of questions in 2014, the United States Department of Justice found that these "discriminatory inquiries" violated the Americans with Disabilities Act:

[An] inquiry into whether a condition or impairment "if untreated could affect" an applicant's ability to practice law is particularly unnecessary and improper. Inquiring about the effect of an applicant's disability when it is untreated reduces the question to one about an applicant's diagnosis, not the effect of that diagnosis on his or her fitness to practice law. This question considers an applicant's disability in a hypothetical future untreated form, which does not inform an assessment of how the disability affects an applicant's current fitness to practice law. It seeks information about the diagnosis alone, assuming a worst case scenario that may never come to pass. It is akin to asking whether an applicant has financial obligations that could result in default or bankruptcy if he or she lost all income and savings.

United States' Investigation of the Louisiana Attorney Licensure System Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (DJ No. 204-32M-60, 204-32-88, 204-32-89) [see PDF below]

Despite these findings, these questions persist on the pages of most bar applications — creating additional anxiety for aspiring lawyers who fear that the treatment they need may jeopardize the life they want to lead.

I understand the trepidation. But I would not counsel anyone to avoid treatment for fear that they may be deemed unfit for admission. In a profession with a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and addiction than society at large, appropriate intervention is the very best way to ensure your fitness for the practice of law and the practice of life.

In my view, and I believe in the view of most bar examiners, lawyers who attend to their mental health are far more fit than those who neglect it in order to avoid questions on a bar application. While I believe that these questions will begin to disappear, do not make the mistake of concealing your condition or your treatment when completing the form. Bipolar disorders can be treated. A lack of candor cannot.

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When the Maryland Board of Law Examiners, DC Bar Committee on Admissions, or any character committee questions your character and fitness for bar admission, bar applicants should retain an attorney to assist in disclosing information relevant to character and fitness, to guide them through the bar admissions process, and to represent applicants in character committee hearings and in hearings before the Court of Appeals to determine whether they are fit to practice law. Character and fitness concerns may arise in connection with prior criminal convictions, academic dishonesty and honor code violations, addictions, drunk driving, neglected debts, and a failure to disclose material information on law school applications or on bar applications. If you have a history of misconduct, traffic citations, crimes, arrests and other facts to disclose in response to the character portion of the Maryland Bar Application or the DC Bar's NCBE application, you should strongly consider retaining bar admissions counsel if you want to avoid denial of a law license and get a license to practice law. This is even true for applicants for admission to law schools as these applications ask similar questions about character. A failure to disclose facts material to your admission could result in a denial of bar admission.


By The Lawyer's Lawyers | Kramer & Connolly and  who are responsible for the content of this informational website.