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The Lawyer's Mental Health Condition Re-Visited

Burdine & Brown March 30, 2020

In a few prior blogs I have been writing about the mental health of lawyers practicing in Georgia. There seem to be an increasing concern or preoccupation with our ability to function in an increasingly hostile world with our depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and drug dependency, highly caffeinated mental and possibly suicidal condition. In other words, how can we properly represent our clients if we suffer from these conditions?

In Georgia, the Board to Determine Bar Fitness asks applicants who want to be a lawyer the following question:

“Do you currently have any condition or impairment (including, but not limited to, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, or a mental of emotional or nervous disorder or condition) that in any way affects your ability to practice law in a competent, ethical and professional manner?”

Georgia also asks whether an applicant to take the bar exam has ever used a mental condition or impairment as a defense in a formal proceeding at school or in a work place setting.

In New York state, questions like the above have now been completely removed from the Bar application. The removal has been treated as a positive move to viewing mental health in a more positive light. I am not sure the objective has been met.

It seems to me that needing mental health treatment, while certainly beneficial for the individual, impacts greatly upon a lawyer's ability to render appropriate counselling and to conduct his/her legal business in a way that assists and benefits the public.

Having genuine mental issues, alcohol or drug issues even before one enters the practice of law is not going to produce a successful law career. There is enough stress to practicing law with a “clean” bill of mental health let alone entering into the practice with the mental health baggage in multiple forms.

Practicing law is a profession that should be highly regarded. The public places great trust in the lawyer they choose to represent them. This work is vastly different from work in the trades. Competency is measured in different ways. Reliance on lawyer given advice has vastly different consequences.

We should not be forced to make a choice between protecting the new bar applicants from their past versus protecting the public from those lawyers who are already suffering from mental health issues. Georgia is right to ask these questions on their bar admission application. New York now fails to protect the wrong group of people, the public.