The Last Taboo: Breaking Law Students with Mental Illnesses and Disabilities out of the Stigma Straitjacket

Document Type

Law Review Article

Publication Date



health barriers, bar passage


The number of people with illnesses, disorders, and disabilities in our society is huge. More than fifty million Americans are disabled, at least to some degree. That equates to nearly twenty percent of all Americans. Even more Americans, although not qualified as persons with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), suffer from a temporary or periodic disability, disorder, or illness during some time in their lives. Although physical disabilities and illnesses usually come to mind when one thinks about legal protections and the availability of employment or educational opportunities, mental illnesses, disorders, and disabilities are just as prevalent in our society. Many people suffer from episodic or periodic mental illnesses or disorders during their lives.

Although professional treatment, counseling, and medication greatly mitigate the symptoms and adverse affects of many mental illnesses, disorders, and disabilities, people who suffer from them continue to be stigmatized and discriminated against. As a result, they often suffer significant hurdles to employment and educational opportunities.

Ironically, the very people who are in the best position to increase the number of lawyers who intimately understand the discrimination and health care laws in our society impose some of the highest hurdles to employment and educational opportunities. Lawyers stigmatize and often decline to hire other lawyers unless they have a clean mental health history-free of disabilities, disorders, and illnesses.

Bar examiners inquire about prospective law students' mental health and refuse to allow them to practice law based on their past mental health history. At times, the bar only offers conditional admission to law students with current or past mental health issues. As a result, law students who mentally suffer during law school play a game of caution. They decline needed treatment and counseling, fearful of repercussions from fellow law students, faculty, and administrators if they disclose their problems.

Most of all, law students who mentally suffer during law school fear questions asked on bar admission character and fitness questionnaires, which may prevent them from pursuing their chosen profession. Stigmatization, hurdles, and fear occur in law schools and within the legal profession, despite the call from the American Bar Association ("ABA") to increase the number of lawyers with disabilities within its membership. The ABA calls for the elimination of bias and the enhancement of diversity in the organization, the legal profession, and the justice system. This article is about the hurdles bar examiners impose on prospective lawyers with mental health issues, causing law students to hide their problems. It begins by examining the types of mental illnesses or disorders suffered by law students and the adverse affect upon the legal profession when future lawyers do not seek help for their mental problems. It also discusses the legal protections afforded to law students suffering from mental disorders and illnesses under the ADA and the dilemma they face in choosing whether to disclose their problems to law schools, bar examiners, and character and fitness committees of bar associations. It discusses how law schools and the bar examiners often discourage law students from seeking the help that they need from mental health professionals. Finally, this article discusses recent amendments to the ADA, broadening the reach of its protection to people with both permanent and periodic mental illnesses and disorders.