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NY law deans join NYSBA effort to remove mental health questions from Character and Fitness exam

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The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) is working to remove the questions about mental health from the Character and Fitness examination to join the bar. I was part of the NYSBA Working Group on Mental Health that determined that the questions had an adverse impact on law school students.

The questionnaire asks applicants about any treatment they’ve sought or received for mental health and whether they think that impairs their ability to practice law. And, really, how are law students, who have hopefully never practiced law before being admitted to the bar, supposed to know what would impair their ability to practice it? The question is flawed and overly subjective.

Studies show that asking questions about mental health on the bar application actually deters law students from seeking treatment they may need, for fear that it will have a negative effect on their bar admission. Many states have already removed questions like these from applications, so why not New York too? 

I think it’s the right thing to do and the New York State Legislature thinks so too. State Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman proposed a bill days after a report urging the questions’ elimination was approved by NYSBA. The deans from 14 of New York’s 15 law schools have joined the effort and a Columbia Law School student is circulating a petition urging that court administrators follow the recommendations.

Please don’t get me wrong: it is still very important to focus on a bar candidate’s behavior and conduct to evaluate fitness to practice law—but many other questions on the application already tease out those issues. 

I’m thrilled that young lawyers and law students were asked to contribute to the Working Group on Mental Health. I don’t think I would have gotten the opportunity to be a part of the group, if not for my involvement in NYSBA.

I would encourage all law students and young lawyers to get involved in bar association work. There are many issues that need to be addressed, and the young lawyer’s perspective is vitally important.  Membership in NYSBA for law students is free, and the fee is reduced for young lawyers just starting out. 

I hope you join to support our work on removing the mental health question from the bar application.

Lauren Sharkey Lauren Sharkey is the chair of the NYSBA Young Lawyers Section and is a partner at Cioffi • Slezak • Wildgrube P.C., in Schenectady, NY. She practices in the areas of estate planning and administration, elder law, business law and real estate and is a graduate of Albany Law School and Pace University.