Changes on Becoming a Lawyer?
The process of becoming a lawyer is arduous. A person has to graduate high school and obtain a four-year degree from an accredited college. Then the person has to apply, and be accepted into, law school. Graduating from law school is required, followed, of course, by the dreaded bar exam. Passing that still isn’t the end of the story. The applicant must also pass a “character and fitness” examination where they must prove the requisite character of becoming an attorney. This portion is no joke. Prospective attorneys have been denied a license. It’s this extra examination that’s the subject of today’s post.
Lawyers wield enormous power and have enormous responsibilities. Sometimes lawyers are the only thing standing in the way of thousands of people losing their jobs, or one family losing their home, or even someone’s death. Which is to say, we do want people who bear these responsibilities to be of high moral character and responsibility. Which is also to say, sometimes being a lawyer is pretty stressful.
How stressful? Well according to this article, lawyers have a high rate of suicide, the fourth highest among professional careers. (Incidentally the higher professions are medical, also known for being stressful).
But there’s a flip side to the idea that the legal profession drives people to suicide. What if the who are attracted to careers in law are also prone to acute stress and/or depression? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that’s impossible to answer. What is known is that besides suicide, lawyers also have a higher rate of incidence of substance abuse. A career may not drive someone to alcoholism or depression, but it can exacerbate issues that existed well before the results of the bar came back.
So what does all of this have to do with becoming an attorney? Well that character and fitness portion has a section where a prospective attorney must disclose their mental health history, including their treatment history. Which means that if a law student made the very intelligent decision to seek treatment for their own mental health, they have to disclose it to a panel of strangers. And it’s possible those disclosures could give that panel enough pause they would deny the person the chance to practice law.
This article from Slate lays out the history and status of this question. It’s well-written and worth reading through. I’ll just pull this quote out there as the essence of the issue:
“The most dangerous risk of all is that law students with psychiatric disabilities will avoid treatment out of fear of having to report it to the bar examiners and consequently being denied a license to practice law.”
This is the worst possible outcome. Someone who has the good sense to pursue treatment, but doesn’t. Not a position for those we entrust with jobs and homes and lives.
Luckily the Department of Justice has formally admonished the states’ bar associations for the “antiquated” question. Whether that will cause meaningful change any time soon remains to be seen. If you care about the issue, as I do, feel free to tell the Washington State Bar Association.
The other change that may be afoot is requiring law students to obtain clinical/real-world experience before graduating. Nominally this is for helping students land jobs after graduation but I think it’s a great change for creating better lawyers.
Most attorneys I’ve spoken with, both those I went to school with and those I didn’t, agree that law school does not do a good job preparing attorneys for real-life practice. This article agrees: law school teaches theoretical and abstract concepts over the nuts-and-bolts of representing clients.
I was lucky. In my third year of law school, and well after, I worked at the local public defenders, where more experienced attorneys took me under their wing to show me the ropes of criminal defense. Most lawyers need that hands-on tutelage because, again, law school just doesn’t go a great job of giving its students the right tools to succeed.
That does seem to be changing. The ABA recently published a resolution to encourage more clinical experience for law students.
It’s a good change, for a couple of reasons. The job market for attorneys is famously terrible, so a lot of new attorneys are striking out on their own or in partnerships with other young lawyers. While they are certainly bright and driven, it’s better that young lawyers’ first clients be under the supervision of more experienced attorneys. This change helps that happen.
Secondly, a prospective attorney with past mental health issues, who might have trouble under the old standards, would now be able to point to successful experience in representing clients. And a quality representation of clients is something all attorneys desire.