On Jan. 25, 2019, the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee voted to remove mental health questions from the Connecticut bar application, ending long-standing criticism from advocates about the overreaching and discriminatory practice.
For decades, applicants to the Connecticut bar were required to answer questions about and provide documentation regarding mental health diagnosis as well as drug and alcohol use. In 2014, the CBEC changed the questions to focus on an applicant’s behavior and not the underlying diagnosis. That same year, the Department of Justice issued a finding that the Louisiana bar could not ask about mental health diagnoses but could ask about behavior. This ruling provided validation to disability and mental health advocates, who had been fighting for the removal of mental health questions based on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In August 2015, the American Bar Association House of Delegates passed Resolution 102, calling on bar examiners to focus on behavior and conduct that impairs an attorney’s ability to practice in a competent, professional and ethical way.
Despite the rule change in 2014, the impact of the former rules remained. Law students still hesitate to seek treatment, fearing that they will have to disclose treatment to the bar examiners. Law schools across the country, but specifically in our state, have long focused on the well-being of their students through wellness programs, providing access to mental health providers, and collaborations with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) to ensure that students get the help they need. Despite the resources, the overriding fear that the diagnosis and treatment records for mental health illness would prohibit bar admission led many students to not seek appropriate treatment for mental health issues.
The study of mental health and addiction issues of lawyers and law student mental health and well-being was renewed after a number of attorneys and law students died by suicide. In 2014, the Survey of Law Student Well-Being was released, noting that 17% of law students surveyed struggled with depression. Data from the Dave Née Foundation further highlights the issue, noting that before matriculation law students have levels of depression equal to the general population (approximately 8%). After matriculation that number increases to 27% after one semester and up to 40% after three years.
In 2016, an ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study on lawyer well-being reported that a significant number of attorneys suffer from anxiety (19%), depression (28%), and stress (23%), highlighting what we already know: the practice of law is stressful. Viewed in tandem with the law student study, the research was troubling.
In 2017, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” the report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was released. The report served as a call to action for law schools, bar associations, regulators, lawyer assistance programs, insurance carriers, legal employers and the judiciary. It examined the studies referenced above and provided concrete steps we can all take on reducing the stigma of mental health and addiction so that lawyers and law students can focus on well-being.
In 2018, the Connecticut Bar Association created a lawyer well-being task force, comprised of attorneys throughout the state, to explore ways to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, support law student and lawyer well-being, and engage in conversations about the diversity of our profession. The task force, which includes members of the bar examining committee, LCL, law schools, local and affinity bar associations and mental health professionals, launched a website which provides resources and tools for legal professionals in need of assistance for themselves or their colleagues.
The CBEC’s decision to remove the mental health questions from the bar examination is powerful and a long overdue step which will hopefully serve to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues, ensure that legal professionals seek treatment, and create a more inclusive profession. The decision is also a testament to the Connecticut legal community as a leader in lawyer well-being.