This blog post is written by Sydney Coelho, class of 2022, with edits by Professor Benjamin Madison.
Happy "Well-Being Week in Law" to all of you aspiring and practicing professionals out there. In honor of this week, CEFLER brings you some food for thought:
Do you know “Question 17”? Perhaps it’s not “Question 17” where you live, but you can be certain that your state’s bar exam likely covers the same topic: Are you mentally fit enough to practice? In other words, are you well enough to practice—mentally and maybe even physically?
While the scenario below is related to Virginia test takers, anyone who is planning to take the bar exam is advised to talk to your state bar about this highly troublesome topic.
Consider this: Jane has a history of heavy drinking with two DUIs from back in her undergraduate days. Jane cleaned up her act seven years ago while still in school and worked for about five years before she decided to go to law school. Jane is now facing an existential crisis because she has to report the DUIs on her character and fitness application. Can a candidate like Jane still pass the character and fitness assessment of the Virginia bar exam despite her history of mental illness or addiction, colloquially referred to as a “question 17”? In the above matter, because Jane has a criminal record, she would need to report the DUIs. She may even be called in to speak to the committee about it because a DUI is considered a rather serious offense when one considers someone’s character, let alone two. Jane should, therefore, prepare to be examined on this issue more in depth. Having a couple references and reference letters, ideally from at least one certified professional and a couple of close personal acquaintances, lined up to answer questions about her character now versus then will be of utmost importance to her.
But what if Jane only had a drinking problem? Maybe she voluntarily spent a stent in rehab, but had no DUIs? Must she report this? As typical of the legal profession, it depends on the candidate. Is the issue recent or past history? Is it an ongoing condition like bipolar disorder or epilepsy, but managed properly with medication and therapy, or is the condition unmanaged and out of control? These are the questions a potential bar candidate must ask his/her self when considering a “question 17” in this context. If it’s an ongoing condition, but its managed, there is no mandatory reporting. Likewise, if the issue is unmanaged and ongoing, one must report. In other words, Jane does not have to report her stent in rehab because it’s a managed condition that does not, in her current state, affect her ability to competently and diligently practice law. The same would be true if she had a present health condition or mental illness. So long as she was being treated, she would not have to report it.
Best rule of thumb, when in doubt, report it and plan to have someone speak on your behalf.
What if you’re already practicing? There are resources out there to help you too:
The ABA had launched an initiative for employers to promote lawyer well-being in the profession. You can learn more about it here. See https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/well-being-in-the-legal-profession/. Virginia students and practitioners can always reach out to the Virginia Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program. See https://vjlap.org/. The program’s phone line is confidential and available 24/7 at 1-877-545-4682.
What if you’re not from Virginia or are planning to practice in another state? There are places you can go too. A good place to start is the ABA website. See https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/lap_programs_by_state/
You may also want to check out the following: https://lawyerwellbeing.net/well-being-week-resources/
Remember: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV). A healthy lawyer is competent. A lawyer who isn’t honest with himself about his fitness to practice may find himself in trouble with the disciplinary committee and possibly disbarred. Learn to trust the Lord and to rely on others in your life who reflect the peace to which the above passage refers. They will help you, as you help yourself, and doing that will lead to the peace we are promised. Finding that peace will also inevitably lead to doing the right thing when faced with ethical challenges.