It may not seem like lawyers were vulnerable to suicide, but research has revealed that depressed lawyers are as much as six times as likely to take their own lives as people in the general population.
The U.S. Department of Justice has told officials of the state of Vermont and those in Louisiana that asking questions about someone’s fitness to practice law or their character, and basically about their mental health and following up by requiring details in terms of medical information is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title II. This provision of the law prohibits public entities from any form of discrimination against people with disabilities, including depressed lawyers.
The DOJ in addition has regulatory provisions that govern the states’ practices and provisions for licensing attorneys. Admittance to the State Bar does vary among the states, however each state must ensure its applicants to the Bar are of sound mind, have good moral character and are fit to practice law.
The Vermont Human Rights Commission as well as the Louisiana Supreme Court both received notification from the United States acting assistant Attorney General regarding these issues. She told them that although the court has the responsibility of asking questions related to an applicant’s conduct, questions regarding their status as someone diagnosed with a mental health condition are counterproductive in ensuring that a particular attorney is indeed fit to practice law, and these types of questions violate civil rights laws.
Should Depressed Lawyers be Singled Out?
As with other states across the country, Vermont and Louisiana insist that applicants to the State Bar have the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) put together a report on the applicant’s character. As part of this process, would-be attorneys complete forms, including one that asks 28 questions designed to determine a person’s moral character and whether or not they are fit to practice law. Approximately half the states in the country use these forms from the NCBE.
The DOJ was particularly interested in three questions that were asked on these NCBE forms. These questions had to do with the applicant’s state of mental health, any alcohol and/or substance abuse problems, and if the applicant had mental disorders or emotional problems that, if went untreated, could influence their ability to carry out their responsibilities in practicing law.
As a result the NCBE decided to change its questions insofar as mental health issues go. The question they are eliminating asked the applicant if he or she had received a diagnosis or been treated for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia or any type of psychotic disorder within the previous five years. They have replaced this with another question asking the applicant if in the previous five years they have exhibited the type of behavior or conduct that might call into question his or her ability to, in effect practice law competently, ethically and professionally. This presumably would allow the states to identify depressed lawyers, and those suffering from problems with substance abuse.
Whether the State Bar should be allowed to inquire about the mental health of prospective attorneys remains an open question, one not easily resolved. What happens if and when an applicant’s mental problems cause reckless conduct? There is no black or white answer as to whether applicants to the Bar should have their mental health scrutinized to determine if they are fit to practice law. However, there is overall agreement that depressed lawyers should receive treatment. Effective treatment for depression is available now.