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N.Y. to Ban Mental Health Question on State Bar Application (1)

Feb. 26, 2020, 5:23 PM; Updated: Feb. 26, 2020, 7:21 PM

New York State’s court system will remove questions about mental health history from its bar application, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced Wednesday.

After debate and study, the court system plans to revise the application, DiFiore said in her 2020 State of Our Judiciary address.

“The amended application will no longer ask intrusive questions about a candidate’s mental health conditions or treatment history,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Instead, the application will focus on disclosure of behavior and conduct that is relevant to a candidate’s fitness to practice law.”

The presence of mental health questions on the bar exam, and stigma around mental illness, have proven to be barriers to treatment within the legal profession, according to a New York State Bar Association report. DiFiore said the mental health and well-being of New York’s lawyers is of “paramount importance.”

The Conference of Chief Justices last year passed a resolution calling on its members, and state and territorial bar admission authorities to eliminate questions about mental health history from bar admission applications. New York would be one of several states including California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington to enact similar prohibitions.

An ‘Unnecessary’ Question

The New York State Bar Association in November called upon the court system to remove the questions, particularly Question 34 of the character and fitness review, which is done by each of the state’s the four appellate departments. The question asks if the applicant has “any condition or impairment including, but not limited to a mental, emotional, psychiatric, nervous or behavioral disorder or condition, or an alcohol, drug or other substance abuse condition or impairment or gambling addiction, which in any way impairs or limits your ability to practice law?”

The Bar Association’s working group, which studied the issue, found that No. 34 and other questions related to mental disability are “unnecessary” and should be eliminated from the application.

Law students are experiencing increased stress and mental health issues as a result of law school demands, rising student debt, and an uncertain job market, according to the working group’s report. But they may fail to seek assistance for these problems because of the presence of mental health questions on the application, the report said.

New York’s association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the country with more than 70,000 members.

“Today marks a historic step forward in addressing the ongoing mental health crisis in the legal profession,” bar association president and Greenberg Traurig shareholder Henry M. Greenberg said in a statement. “Future generations of New York lawyers no longer need to live in fear that bravely and smartly seeking treatment for mental health issues could one day derail their careers.”

Consolidation, Other Reforms

Other topics addressed in DiFiore’s speech included:

  • The “urgent” need to simplify the state’s court system, taking it from 11 trial courts down to three levels—a supreme court, municipal court, and justice courts serving towns and villages. DiFiore said she has spoken with state Legislative leaders who said they are exploring the issue.
  • Making tweaks to the state’s new bail reform legislation, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and felonies. DiFiore is advocating for the restoration of judicial discretion.
(Adds a comment from the bar association president and additional information on the speech starting in paragraph 10.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Keshia Clukey in Albany, N.Y. at kclukey@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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