Am I too narcissistic to be a lawyer?
January 4, 2011 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Character & Fitness District Committee: How serious is this?

I have read similar questions about whether to disclose mental health issues on bar applications. I did not write those questions, and this one pertains to post-application procedures.

I did disclose on my bar application 1 year in therapy (DBT) and the nervous breakdown that necessitated it. The nervous breakdown came during my second summer of law school right after a pretty crappy divorce. I stayed for one week in a voluntary in-patient mental health center.

I sent the releases to character & fitness when they were requested. Then I was told that I was being called before a district committee to answer the question of whether I suffer from a mental disability that prevents me from practising law! Up to that point, based on my discharge papers from the ward, I believed I had only been diagnosed with major depression (duh, divorce!).

Now that I've read the records myself, I discover that the doctors there diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder and even mentioned bipolar! I knew that DBT is for borderline patients, but the doctor at the ward specifically said that she hadn't seen me long enough to diagnose me. I'm kind of freaked out, which is spawning more freaking out.

The DBT therapist that I saw for a year (I recently stopped because I reached a really great place) wrote a letter to the bar giving her opinion that I was suffering PTSD that summer due to an emotionally abusive relationship and the break-up fallout. Do I need to go back to therapy to look good?

So, how serious of impediments might these diagnoses be? (I'm in Michigan.) I have hired a lawyer and he is scheduling a psychiatric assessment. I have a hard time believing that I have a mental "disability" if it wasn't apparent enough for the doctor to tell me to my face, or to graduate from law school cum laude! I've also been working as a law clerk very happily and productively since I graduated in May.

Also, if you have been through this process, please tell me how to proceed as sanely as possible. If I'm not already crazy, dealing with these bureacrats is sure to get me there!

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The only person I know who was denied a license to practice law for a mental disability was in a car accident that resulted in traumatic brain injury that involved major, though hopefully temporary and she is improving, loss of various cognitive functions. (Her license was actually pulled; she HAD been a lawyer, had the accident, and was not allowed to return to practice.)

This is PROBABLY fairly routine; I've seen people called before the committee for an "excess of speeding tickets" (3 of them -- "shows a contempt for the law"). As noted, I've only seen one person with a "character and fitness" problem and that was a result of traumatic brain injury (though of course I'm aware of the Matt Hale case).

I don't know as much about bar admission, but for practicing lawyers I know who have situations similar to yours (in my state, Illinois), what the state bar and the malpractice insurers are primarily concerned about is your actual ability to practice law without stealing client money or committing general malpractice in your handling of client cases. The fact that you sought treatment and sorted out your problems counts in your favor; I would expect they PROBABLY just want some backstory about the divorce and the breakdown so they understand where it came from and how you handled it and that it's in the past but you're still vigilant about your mental health. A clean bill of mental health from a psychiatrist will be a bonus.

(Managed bipolar is no big deal at all. I know several practicing attorneys with managed BPD; borderline personality disorder might be trickier but I think it will be fine.)

Just to give you (and later readers) a little more information, many state bars have confidential programs to help practicing attorneys suffering from mental illness (or physical illness, or other temporary impairment). If you were to find, for example, that you suddenly COULDN'T practice because you were mid-nervous-breakdown, you can call this number for help and the state bar will help you find local attorneys who can take over your cases so your clients have no interruption in adequate representation, and they have an ombudsman who will call judges and briefly explain that there will be a substitution of counsel and a request for an extension on the case, which the judges generally automatically grant, because they understand what the ombudsman does and the agreement in the profession is to GET HELP while respecting client needs. Because, look, everyone wants you to get adequate help without torpedoing your career, while still ensuring that clients receive competent representation. And you're entering a profession where something like a third of practicing attorneys suffer from depression and around 15%-20% have some form of substance abuse problem. Mental health problems are widespread, and the profession has shifted to trying to provide supportive services designed for lawyers that encourage people to seek treatment without stigma and without publicity.

I mean, literally, they want to know if you CAN'T practice law because you're impaired -- obviously doesn't sound like a problem -- and insurers will want to know if you're at very high risk of stealing client money, which happens more with gambling and substance addictions, or of completely blowing cases off, which leads to lawsuits, which happens with UNMANAGED mental illness. On the one hand, this IS a serious business where your actions affect people's lives and livelihoods. On the other hand, with the bar examiners (and the malpractice insurers), you're dealing with normal human beings with normal human sympathies who all have a relative with depression somewhere, around a third of whom have suffered from similar problems themselves, to whom you will basically say, "Yeah, it sucked, I got treatment, I'm in a good place now; and I'm vigilant about my mental health." And they'll almost certainly say, "Right on, man."

Memail me and I can tell you a little more about specific cases, if you like.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:42 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistant Program, btw -- they may be able to answer some questions or may have some materials to assist you. They do have a section for "students" there.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:47 AM on January 4, 2011

*Assistance. Stupid typo gremlins.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:47 AM on January 4, 2011

You will be fine. How responsible would they be if they did not have someone speak to you in person? Given your doctors' positive written comments and as long as you don't present yourself as someone clearly incapable of law practice in the interview you will not be stopped from joining the bar. Whatever you do keep telling the truth about everything and don't look like you are hiding anything. You have nothing to hide based upon your description. The biggest red flag for the local character and fitness committee interviews are signs that you might have problems with honesty. Most lawyers who lose their license do so from some form of dishonesty. You went through a tough spell and worked your way out of it. There are many lawyers who have done the same both in practice and prior to practice.
posted by caddis at 12:04 PM on January 4, 2011

Having seen a few C&F discipline panels, it seemed to me that the presence (or absence) of honesty, contrition, and sincerity in one's efforts to make amends for past misdeeds is the biggest factor in guiding the panel's decision. Although this isn't a disciplinary issue, I would expect that similar factors (mutatis mutandis) would apply: honesty and a show of sincere efforts to get help. Mostly what they are concerned with is whether you are morally fit; if your mental health issues do not include pathological lying or kleptomania, you probably have nothing to worry about.
posted by holterbarbour at 3:47 PM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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