US push to end mental health disclosures by attorneys extends to New Jersey

New York, Ohio and Virginia recently eliminated mental health questions in character and fitness ratings. Advocates say such questions discourage law students from seeking help

(Reuters) – According to the New Jersey State Bar Association and the state’s two law schools, law school graduates should not be required to disclose personal mental health information when applying to practice law in New Jersey.

The Bar Association this month asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to remove Question 12B from a mandatory “Character and Suitability” questionnaire, which asks all applicants whether they have any conditions that affect their ability to practice law, including substance abuse or a “mental, emotional or nervous disorder or condition” and whether they are seeking treatment.

“Rather than contributing to a reluctance to seek psychological help, we should encourage the efforts of bar applicants and attorneys to seek the help they need as early as possible,” Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the attorney general’s office, wrote in a letter from March 21 to the state Supreme Court.

New Jersey Judiciary spokesman Peter McAleer said the court was reviewing the prosecutor’s request and found that disclosure of a mental health issue does not disqualify a candidate from practicing law.

“The court has been sensitive to the well-being of candidates and their mental health issues, and over time has revised both the questionnaire and the regulations governing the Committee on Character’s limited consideration of mental health issues,” McAleer said in a statement.

According to the New Jersey Bar Association, 26 states either never surveyed attorneys and law graduates on mental health issues, substantially modified those questions, or eliminated them altogether.

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Neighboring New York state halted its mental health disclosures for applicants to practice law in 2020 after attorneys argued it stigmatized such conditions and discouraged law students from seeking help. Ohio dropped its character and fitness question on mental health or mental disorders in January. Virginia law students successfully pressured the state to stop asking for mental health questions in 2019.

A 2022 national study of well-being among law students found that 44% of respondents said the potential threat to their legal license could prevent them from seeking help for a mental health issue.

When law students at Rutgers University in New Jersey are referred for campus counseling, they often ask if they need to tell the bar association and if it will hold up their character and fitness evaluation, co-deans Kimberly Mutcherson and Rose Cuison-Villazor wrote in their own letter to the court in January.

‚ÄúThere are other more effective and less intrusive methods of screening candidates for personal characteristics that affect their suitability for the practice. This investigation should be behavior based, not medical record based,” they wrote.

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Karen Sloan

Thomson Reuters

Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools and legal businesses. You can reach her at [email protected]