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Podcast: Mental health’s connection to the moral character and fitness application

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Character and Fitness

Law students face severe stress, frequently leading to a need for treatment for mental illness.  For those who have sought treatment, the moral character fitness application raises great anxiety.  Even if their treatment was successful and they are functioning well, students fear denial (or even just questions) related to previous or current mental illness diagnosis or treatment.

A big concern is how to encourage these law students to get the help they need.  As it turns out, many are not seeking treatment or counseling out of fear for how it will be perceived by the bar examiners. This brings up some critical questions:

  • Should law students get the mental health assistance they may need?
  • Should they disclose the treatment during the moral character fitness process?

Recently, I spoke with Margaret Hannon, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School who was also recently published regarding this very subject by the ABA for Law Students, and Katherine Silver Kelly, an associate clinical professor and director of academic support at Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, for an episode of the Lawyers Gone Ethical podcast. Here’s a summary of their opinions related to these key questions.

Should Law Students Get the Mental Health Assistance They May Need?

Margaret stated that absolutely they should get help.  She believes many students opt out of getting the help they need out of fear over how it will be viewed by the bar examiners. They’re also afraid of how they will be viewed by the law school community regarding their need for treatment.

Katherine believes that law students should get the treatment that they need and points out that many state bar examiners see treatment as a positive factor. Some application forms even state that they do not or have not denied applicants based on mental health despite the fact that the applications still ask about it.

Should Law Students Disclose Their Mental Health Treatment During the Moral Character Fitness Process?

Many law students consider not disclosing past or current mental health diagnosis or treatment. After all, if they don’t tell and their doctor or therapist can’t violate privacy laws, what could possibly go wrong? It’s not like anyone could find out, right?

I pointed out that there is a big risk in not disclosing. A lawyer could be well into their career and make statements about mental health and seeking treatment during law school. The bar has the option to pull their application, despite its age, and see that this information wasn’t disclosed. Depending on the jurisdiction, they could cancel the lawyer’s license or disbar them for dishonesty.

Margaret agrees that being candid about mental health treatment is the best option given the current reality that mental health questions are still asked. The bar isn’t necessarily looking at the fact that you received a diagnosis or treatment. They’re looking at whether you’ll be honest about it happening. Failure to disclose this information could create a bigger problem in the future.

Katherine believes that disclosing this information creates an opportunity for the law student to inform and educate. While the goal of the bar is to protect the public, bar examiners don’t necessarily have expertise related to mental health.

Both Margaret and Katherine want law students to make an educated decision about what they should (and shouldn’t) disclose based on the question asked in the jurisdiction in which the student applies for admittance. While students should rely on their peers for support in many areas, it is best if they rely on law school staff whose job it is to understand the question and help the student interpret it and appropriately answer. They can even help students find the answer or get the information they need to properly answer the question asked in another jurisdiction.

To hear this conversation in its entirety, give a listen to the Lawyers Gone Ethical podcast, Episode 25.