Dan Bowling, who holds faculty appointments at Duke Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in positive psychology, returns as our guest columnist.
Are state bar admissions standards for character and fitness unintentionally putting lawyers at risk of suicide?
CNN’s website recently ran a story, asking “Why are Lawyers Killing Themselves?” Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it claims lawyers have one of the highest proportions of suicides among all occupations and are almost four times as likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers.
The depressive tendencies begin in law school. Numerous research studies have shown that law students suffer from higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than the overall populations — conditions that can carry over into practice if untreated.
However, the Dave Nee Foundation suggests that state bar character and fitness tests, which inquire into the mental health history of the applicant, could have a chilling effect on law students who might need treatment. (Named after a popular Fordham University School of Law student who killed himself shortly after graduation, the foundation is dedicated to stopping lawyer suicide. I serve on its advisory board).
Depression is a medical condition, not a sign of weakness, and the sooner an individual can seek help the better. The foundation aims to change how the bar treats depression by reframing the standards to encourage rather than discourage treatment. That view is gaining traction with the American Bar Association. In 1994, the ABA adopted a resolution encouraging bar examiners to “tailor questions concerning mental health and treatment narrowly,” and not to discourage at-risk individuals from seeking treatment.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also ­listening. On Feb. 5, it informed the Louisiana State Bar Association that questions regarding mental health diagnoses and treatment violate the American s With Disabilities Act. The action reverberates well beyond the land of gumbo and gators; the challenged questions are from the standard National Conference of Bar Examiners questionnaire used by many states.
The foundation is assembling a team of legal scholars, bar leaders and mental health experts to frame new questionnaires that both protect the profession and the public, and will work with the ABA and state bars to create and promote character and fitness guidelines.
Right now, mental health questionnaires date to the early 1970s — the decade of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” There have been tremendous gains in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues since then. Isn’t it time for state bar associations to catch up?