Q. After a suicide attempt as a college junior, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Thanks to medication and psychotherapy, I finished college, survived law school, and am doing much better. Must I disclose this on my bar application?
A. Although many states are removing questions about an applicant's mental health from bar applications, most jurisdictions still ask about psychological disorders and treatment in the following ways:
1. Do you currently have any condition or impairment including, but not limited to, mental or emotional infirmity, alcoholism, substance abuse, or nervous disorder or condition which in any way currently affects, or if untreated could affect, your ability to practice law in a competent and professional manner in this jurisdiction?2. Are you currently utilizing or being treated with prescription drugs or other substances in order to manage a mental or emotional infirmity, alcoholism, substance abuse, or nervous disorder or condition?
[An] inquiry into whether a condition or impairment "if untreated could affect" an applicant's ability to practice law is particularly unnecessary and improper. Inquiring about the effect of an applicant's disability when it is untreated reduces the question to one about an applicant's diagnosis, not the effect of that diagnosis on his or her fitness to practice law. This question considers an applicant's disability in a hypothetical future untreated form, which does not inform an assessment of how the disability affects an applicant's current fitness to practice law. It seeks information about the diagnosis alone, assuming a worst case scenario that may never come to pass. It is akin to asking whether an applicant has financial obligations that could result in default or bankruptcy if he or she lost all income and savings.United States' Investigation of the Louisiana Attorney Licensure System Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (DJ No. 204-32M-60, 204-32-88, 204-32-89) [see PDF below]
Despite these findings, these questions persist on the pages of most bar applications — creating additional anxiety for aspiring lawyers who fear that the treatment they need may jeopardize the life they want to lead.
I understand the trepidation. But I would not counsel anyone to avoid treatment for fear that they may be deemed unfit for admission. In a profession with a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and addiction than society at large, appropriate intervention is the very best way to ensure your fitness for the practice of law and the practice of life.
In my view, and I believe in the view of most bar examiners, lawyers who attend to their mental health are far more fit than those who neglect it in order to avoid questions on a bar application. While I believe that these questions will begin to disappear, do not make the mistake of concealing your condition or your treatment when completing the form. Bipolar disorders can be treated. A lack of candor cannot.