Advocating for Removal of Mental Health Inquiries of Bar Applicants

Advocating for Removal of Mental Health Inquiries of Bar Applicants

Emily Cooper, J.D. & Jennifer Mathis, J.D.

A number of disability rights groups, including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and Disability Rights Washington (DRW) have challenged questions on state bar applications that inquire into individuals' mental health histories regardless of whether the individual has engaged in any conduct that would raise concerns about his or her ability to practice law.  Answering these questions typically results in extensive requests for treatment records, delays in applications, and in some states, in conditional admissions where individuals are effectively placed on probation.  As a result of Bazelon's efforts in Louisiana, the Department of Justice issued guidance stating that singling out applicants based on their status of having a mental health disability, rather than the applicant's conduct, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and perpetuates negative stereotypes and assumptions.  Subsequently, bar examiners in a couple of other states have removed mental health questions. This workshop will focus on the various efforts to eliminate these questions and instead reflect a profession that is inclusive and represents diversity regarding individuals with mental, physical, and sensory disabilities.

Goals and Objectives

At the end of this workshop, participants will:

  • Review and assess the relevant state and federal laws governing the issue
  • Review and assess several state's application process and related admission to practice rules
  • Consider whether similar action can be taken in their state.

Questions of Discrimination: Singling out bar applicants with mental illness (PowerPoint)

Bazelon Center's Complaints Result in Agreement Ending Discrimination Against Bar Applicants Based on Mental Health Conditions

Louisiana Bar Conditional Admissions> Resources from

Legal Documents

DOJ Letter to Louisiana Committee on Bar Admissions

2 5 14 Letter from AAG Samuels to the Honorable Chief Justice Johnson (Louisiana findings ltr)Redacted Complaint (1/31/11)

Expert Report by Dr. Howard Zonana: This expert report made by Dr. Howard Zonana to the Rhode Island Supreme Court explains why inquiries into past mental health treatment are not relevant to determining a person's fitness to practice law. Dr. Zonana cites relevant studies, including a study showing that bar applicants with pre-admission mental health histories were no more likely than other applicants to later engage in misconduct as attorneys, and that histories of conduct problems were far more relevant in predicting attorney discipline issues. Dr. Zonana teaches at Yale School of Medicine and has previously served as an expert witness in a number of related cases.

Comments on Tennessee's conditional bar admission proposal

Press Releases, Fact Sheets, and Letters

Letter from Lawyers with Mental Health Conditions, Disability Advocates, and Mental Health Experts Urging DOJ to Take Action against Louisiana Bar

U.S. Justice Dept. Finds States Violate ADA If Inquire into Mental Health Condition or Treatment when Assessing Fitness to Practice Law (2/10/14)

Letter from AAG Samuels to the Honorable Chief Justice Johnson (Louisiana findings ltr, 2/5/14)

Bar Examiners Screening for Mental Illness Violates the ADA (6/20/13)

Link to brief presenter bios:

Emily Cooper, J.D.

Jennifer Mathis, J.D.