Michigan dropping mental health questions for new lawyers entering State Bar

Detroit News staff and wire reports

The Michigan Supreme Court has ordered that questions on the State Bar exam related to mental health be removed.

Through an order issued this week, starting with the February 2021 bar exam, applicants will be asked if any conduct or behavior in the past five years could affect their ability to practice law properly.

Current applicants had to disclose any "treatment, counseling, treatment refusal, counseling refusal, mental condition, emotional condition and nervous condition that impairs or distorts daily life, and to disclose the details and provide names and addresses of all personal and medical parties involved," court officials said.

“We should not be asking applicants to our bar unfocused questions based on generalizations and misconceptions about mental health,” said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack in a statement. “Questions about past diagnoses have the unintentional effect of deterring aspiring attorneys from seeking assistance. Law school is grueling. There is nothing wrong with getting help, and we want to make sure that there are no barriers for our up-and-coming attorneys. This reform helps to stop the stigma.”

The order was issued Wednesday.

Through special administrative order, the Michigan Supreme Court this year sought public input on whether it should address the issue and received extensive comments supporting reform, including two prominent law schools, the State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioners and the Attorney Grievance Commission, which investigates and prosecutes attorney misconduct.

The Conference of Chief Justices, the American Bar Association and the National Task Force for Lawyer Well-Being have made similar recommendations to remove questions about mental health history, the court said.

When it invited public comment last year, the court said at least nine states had dropped questions about mental health.

The push follows a national survey of 3,300 students across 15 law schools published in the autumn 2016 issue of the Journal of Legal Education that found 42% said they needed professional help with their mental health. According to the study, 45% reported they would be discouraged from seeking mental health treatment for fear it would negatively affect Bar admission.

“The Board of Law Examiners is obligated to protect the public, and this reform strengthens those protections without discriminating on the basis of an applicant’s disability,” McCormack said. “By focusing the board’s inquiry on an applicant’s conduct, we hope aspiring attorneys will recognize that mental health treatment is not professionally disqualifying and that they should be encouraged to seek mental health treatment if they need it.”   

Justices Brian Zahra and Stephen Markman disagreed with the change. They noted that questions about mental health are common in other professions and to become a foster parent.

The Michigan Board of Law Examiners now has been “instructed by this court to prioritize the needs of the applicant over the need to protect the public,” Zahra and Markman said.