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It’s Now Easier for Law Students to Get Help

Every now and then the Lawyer Assistance Program gets a call from a law student at one of our seven North Carolina law schools.  The student would rather talk without giving his or her name.   The LAP person answering the phone says that’s OK and asks what the concerns are.

Usually the student is facing some personal life crisis.  It may be the death of a parent:  the student has grieved the loss but hasn’t been able to get back into the groove of law school and is having great difficulty studying and doing work with classmates on a team project.  Or there may be several events that have coincided to trigger distress:  The law student may have broken up with a long time boyfriend, only six months after a close high school friend was killed in a car accident, and now is unable to get out of bed in the morning to get to class and feeling hopelessly alone and afraid.

The bottom line inquiry of callers like these and many others from whom LAP has heard from over the years is:  “If I try to get help will I have to report this on the application to the Bar to be licensed to practice law?”

Until recently the LAP always gave its answer in two parts.  First, it was to encourage the student to get help.  Mental illness and addictive disorders, like other emotional or physical diseases, get better the sooner and more effectively they are addressed.  Situational depression which is untreated for a long period of time can slip into a more serious form of chronic depression which can then be more likely to re-occur throughout a person’s life.  The sooner help is sought and received for depression the better the long term results and prognosis. Similarly with alcoholism and other drug addictions.  Addictions distort brain function.  Addictions change and deepen the way certain aberrant neuronal processes work.  The longer addictive disease progresses the harder it can be in treatment to manage the distorted thinking caused by years of active addiction.  Like other illnesses, the sooner treatment is received for addiction the better the long term results and outcome.

So the LAP has always given students advice and encouragement about the importance of their immediately addressing the life situations that have created depression and mental distress.  Often, however, this encouragement has not been enough to get them to seek help.  The students are still reluctant to seek help if they believe they will have to recite information about their efforts to address their problems on their Bar exam application.  In the past, the second part of the LAP’s answer to their questions has always been to tell them that it is possible that they will have to do so.  They have been told that they should not fear the Board of Law Examiners, that they will be dealt with forthrightly and fairly in presenting information about their condition and that the kind of information recited in these two examples is not the kind of information that the Bar examiners are looking for to find a mental disability that might disqualify someone from being licensed to practice law in North Carolina.  However convincingly the LAP tries to present this response in the second part of the answer there is still, in the student’s  voice, a fear about getting the kind of professional help that might have to be reported in the Bar application.

Fortunately, in the past year the Board of Law Examiners has revised their application questions in an effort to avoid deterring applicants from getting much-needed treatment for mental, emotional or physical problems.  It’s a tight line:  the Board must  protect the public from qualifying a person to practice law who may have a debilitating mental illness that prevents that person from being able to carry out their professional duties as a lawyer.  No-one can reasonably doubt, for example, that a delusional, paranoid, or intoxicated attorney is likely to harm his or her clients, and applicants are appropriately questioned concerning such matters.  At the same time, as is evident from the scenarios described above, there are students who would be well-served by counseling, whose underlying emotional issues (at least if treated promptly) will in no way affect their future practice of law, yet who have been afraid to seek treatment because they don’t want to report it on their bar application.

In the new revised questions in the Bar application, Section I has a preamble which tries to reassure students who fall into the latter group, encouraging them to seek treatment without fear of intrusive and unnecessary questioning.  The Board’s language is as follows:

“The Board encourages applicants who may benefit from treatment to seek it.  The Board does not, by its questions, seek information that is fairly characterized only as situational counseling.  Examples of situational counseling include stress counseling, domestic counseling, grief counseling, and counseling for eating or sleeping disorders.  Generally the Board does not view these types of counseling as germane to the issue of whether an application is qualified to practice law.”

The philosophy of this preamble is carried out in several ways.  First, no information regarding situation counseling, even if it is recent is sought.  Other limitations also carry out this philosophy.  For example, question 25 seeking information regarding mental and  emotional conditions and substance abuse is limited to facts arising within five years of the application.  By so doing the Board of Law Examiners is recognizing that many emotional conditions, although serious at the time, if properly dealt with in the past do not re-occur, and, if such conditions have not been active conditions within five years of applying to the Bar, information concerning them is not germane information.

Question 26 asks whether the applicant has ever been told by a health care professional at any time that they have been impaired as a result of mental, emotional or psychiatric conditions.  Again the question is limited to within the five year period preceding the applicant seeking to take the North Carolina Bar.  The more serious mentally impairing conditions such as schizophrenia, paranoia, psychotic disorder, and bipolar with psychosis are normally permanent emotional disabilities and are dealt with in separate questions.  These forms of mental illness are clearly outside of the situational context. These are conditions for which there is a significant outstanding body of psychiatric literature showing potential long term issues that must be addressed and treated.  In such cases, it is of course appropriate for the Board of Law Examiners to be aware of the conditions and to have information from the applicant showing that they have been able to take responsibility for whatever appropriate treatment is needed for them to be able to function as a professional. Other questions are limited to conditions that have arisen after the applicant’s 18th birthday.  Again this eliminates from disclosure those conditions that might be developmental and occurred during childhood or adolescence and are no longer significant life issues and therefore of no relevant concern.

Now when the LAP receives calls from law students who are clearly dealing with situational issues it can stress to them the importance of getting immediate and good professional help, as well as assure them that they will not have to report their getting help to the Board of Law Examiners.  By encouraging them to get help now the LAP can assure them there is a high likelihood of the help they get ameliorating the situational problem, and, therefore, it is much less likely that they will have any kind of serious issue that will have to be reported on the Bar application.

This change would not have come about without a lot of thoughtful work by the Board of Law Examiners under the leadership of its Chair Susan Olive and its director Fred Parker and by others who have been interested in this issue particularly the North Carolina Bar Association’s Quality of Life Committee under the leadership of Phyllis Lile-King.

Cathy Thompson of Helms Mullis & Wicker in Charlotte chaired the committee of the Board of Law Examiners which evaluated the issue.  Under her leadership her committee (which included Roy Davis, Judge Karl Adkins, Gail Arneke, former Judge Shirley Fulton, and Fred Parker, ex officio)  got input from interested parties, and wrestled with the task of smithing good straight forward language in the application questions embodying the policies which the Board put into place.

Now, we all get to give more positive answers to law students to encourage them to get help.  For that we are grateful for the hard work of Cathy Thompson, her committee and the Board of Law Examiners, as well as Phyllis Lile-King and the Quality of Life Committee.  We believe the results of this change will be that as we continue to have smart law students take the North Carolina Bar, they will be more emotionally healthy ones.  And down the road, we will have a group of lawyers who are more willing to get help, should a life problem emerge while they are practicing lawyers.  This will be an enduring benefit to the Bar generally and the people of the state our profession serves.

– by Don Carroll and Steve Crihfield

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