Excerpt from the American Bar Association, "Conduct Yourselves Accordingly: Amending Bar Character and Fitness Questions To Promote Lawyer Well-Being," by David Jaffe and Janet Stearns, published on January 22, 2020.
The Character and Fitness Screening Process: Solutions and Problems
Admission to the practice of law involves an evaluation of substantive knowledge, tested through the administration of the bar examination, and a separate evaluation of character and fitness. The character and fitness process is intended to identify issues that could affect the responsible and competent practice of law. So, for example, bar examiners will ask about an applicant’s history relating to honor code and academic integrity, criminal history, civil litigation history, and financial dealings, as each piece of information could bear a relationship to the applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent manner.
Deans of Students work daily with law students and counsel them on the professionalism required in law school, as well as the candor required to complete the character and fitness application process. Our role is also to work hand-in-hand with bar regulators to educate the next generation of lawyers and transition them into the legal profession. We have counseled hundreds of law students who have struggled with mental health and substance use issues during law school. Some of these problems are first experienced in law school in the face of academic, financial, and career pressures. In other instances, our law schools have admitted students who have a history of mental health or substance use, but who have overcome these challenges to complete the rigors of law school and prepare themselves for the demands of the bar examination and the profession.
It is deeply troubling that our law students and our profession struggle with substance use and mental health issues. The Survey of Law Student Well-Being updated and confirmed the belief among those in the legal profession, particularly at law schools, that law students are continuing to struggle with substance use disorder and other mental health disorders. The survey of 3,300 law school students across fifteen law schools found that more than one in six screened positive for depression and nearly one in four screened for anxiety.
Forty-two percent of the survey respondents indicated they felt they needed mental health intervention, but 45% would not seek help, believing it would threaten their ability to be admitted to the bar. At the same time, 63% of respondents reported that the potential threat to bar admissions was a factor discouraging them from seeking services for substance use. Almost half of the respondents reported their belief that they had a better chance of getting admitted to the bar if a substance use problem were hidden, and 44% of respondents reported their belief that they had a better chance of getting admitted to the bar if a mental health problem were hidden.
Read more… from the American Bar Association.