US push to end lawyer mental health disclosures extends to New Jersey
- New York, Ohio and Virginia recently eliminated mental health questions in character and fitness reviews
- Advocates say such questions discourage law students from seeking help
(Reuters) - Law school graduates should not be required to disclose personal mental health information when applying to become lawyers in New Jersey, according to the New Jersey State Bar Association and the state’s two law schools.
The bar this month asked the Supreme Court of New Jersey to eliminate question 12B from a mandatory "character and fitness" questionnaire that asks all applicants whether they have any conditions affecting their ability to practice law, including substance abuse or a “mental, emotional or nervous disorder or condition," and whether they are seeking treatment.
“Instead of contributing to a reluctance to seek mental health assistance, we should be championing efforts of bar applicants and attorneys to seek the help they need as early as possible,” wrote state bar president Jeralyn Lawrence in a March 21 letter to the state supreme court.
New Jersey Judiciary spokesperson Peter McAleer said the court is reviewing the state bar’s request and noted that the disclosure of a mental health issue does not by itself disqualify a candidate for bar admission.
“The court has been sensitive to the wellbeing of candidates and to their mental health issues, and over time has revised both the questionnaire and the regulations that govern the Committee on Character’s limited consideration of mental health issues,” McAleer said in a statement.
According to the New Jersey bar, 26 states have either never asked lawyers and law graduates about mental health issues, substantially modified those questions, or eliminated them altogether.
Neighboring New York State eliminated its mental health disclosure for bar admission applicants in 2020 after advocates argued that it stigmatized such conditions and discouraged law students from seeking help. Ohio dropped its character and fitness question about mental or psychological disorders in January. Virginia law students successfully pushed the state in 2019 to stop asking about mental health.
A 2022 national study of law student wellbeing found that 44% of survey respondents said the potential threat to their bar admission might deter them from seeking help for a mental health issue.
When law students at New Jersey's Rutgers University are referred for campus counseling, they often ask whether they will have to disclose that to the bar and whether it will hold up their character and fitness review, wrote co-deans Kimberly Mutcherson and Rose Cuison-Villazor in their own letter to the court in January.
“There are other more effective and less intrusive ways to screen candidates for personal characteristics that affect their fitness to practice. This inquiry should be based on conduct and not health records,” they wrote.
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